Teaching Apologies

I was so excited to read Amy Wade’s "Genuine Apologies: Helping Students Get There" in the latest issue of the Responsive Classroom newsletter! Amy’s article explores why apologizing is so complex, and she offers some strategies and ideas teachers can use to help their students learn how to offer and accept apologies. I wish I’d had some of those ideas when one of the second graders I taught wrote this note to his assistant teacher:

Dear Ms. Koenig,

I am sorry for yelling at you yesterday, but I wouldn’t have done that if you had been nicer to me. I was mad, and I didn’t want you to try to talk to me. But you did, so I yelled. Please don’t do that again.

This letter, written at my insistence, epitomizes much of what is difficult about apologies, especially in school settings. It shows how empty an insincere and involuntary apology can be. In this case, apologizing did little to help the student reflect on why yelling was problematic, or on other ways he might have let Ms. Koenig know what he needed.

This particular apology also did nothing to help restore the relationship between Ms. Koenig and this student. In fact, the non-apology apology has stuck with her after all these years. (Indeed, every time she hears a politician, entertainer, or friend make a similar, "I’m sorry, but . . ." apology, her mind goes back to that letter!) 

Students need more help than just being told “Say you’re sorry!” to learn the skill of making a genuine apology. I hope you’ll find Amy’s article on this challenging topic to be as refreshing as I did.

Go to previous post: A Real-Life Rules Story

I am now teaching kindergarten and taught fourth grade before and apologies have always been hard. I took the Responding to Misbehavior seminar earlier this school year and interestingly enough the comment that the stuck in my head was the comment about how to scaffold an apoligy. It felt authentic and honest to me. It was not exactly a I'm Sorry—but an acknowledgement that a hurt had happened and that we got to the central issue of what was really desired by both parties involved. Somehow that felt more like teaching the listening skills needed and perhaps showcasing the empathy as well—needed to make something right. Taking responsibility for one's behavior is so hard at times. It is difficult being human. We had touched upon how meaningless "I"m Sorry" can sound and be. Many folks just don't apoligize anymore for their behavior—Adults and children—so modeling becomes so important if you really believe that relationships are at the heart of learning.

What I think was said or what I took away was the dialoque goes something likes this:

The injured party states their "I" statement—I am angry when you. . . .

The party whose intentions are in question reflects back (often as we teachers know—all feel injured and often are).

The part that has worked magic in some ways was the simple question: "What can I do to make it better?" that came at the end of the reflection.

Somehow this beginning (it won't fly for everyone) helped my kindergarteners to see that the other person needed them to do something so that the disagreement or injury would not continue. Often the injured says—Don't ever do that again which makes them feel like they have had their say. Often—they say it's okay and off they go.

It is not perfect—and I am sure there are those who would poke holes and ask questions about things but the apoligy comes forth in a way that feel like both parties are able to be whole again and move on. Of course—the more serious the hurt—the more work this whole dialoque and making amends becomes. And well—Anger adds another dimension which needs to be addressed all on it's own often times. We all see it—in school and everywhere—even at a stop sign.

I'd wished I had practiced it when I was in fourth grade but that is why I am in school—I just keep learning.


Hi, Susie,
Your thoughtful comments really added a great deal to understanding how complex this issue is.  I think the idea of scaffolding the skill of apologizing is an important idea for teachers to consider.  As you say, learning to recognize the hurt we cause and how we could make amends are both really important steps for all of us, students and adults, to learn.  Thanks for sharing your learning.