Should we force children to apologize? Tough question, and I think the answer lies in what we are teaching children when we make this decision. If we insist that a child apologizes, even if she is not at all sorry for her actions, we run into a problem. Children learn that we should say “I’m sorry” even when we don’t mean it or when we don’t know what we did wrong. It becomes a hollow action that can make the child more resentful.

Young children have a hard time understanding the effects of their actions on other people, so it’s better to offer a more concrete solution. Instead of saying some empty words, encourage the child to make amends instead. Think of this as an apology-in-action. First, the child will need some time to calm down so she can process information. Next, review with the child what she did that was hurtful and why. Help the child to understand how the other person is feeling right now. Next encourage her to think of ways she can make that person feel better. At the bare minimum, a child should give back something they grabbed or took, but beyond that, encourage her to think of a way to make the other child (or adult) feel better as well. Here are some ideas:

        • If the child hurt someone — give a hug, or make a picture, or say something nice about the person who was hurt
      • If the child broke something — help to fix it
      • If the child made a mess of something — help to clean it up
      • If a block-building was knocked down — help to rebuild it

Of course, a child can also chose to say, “I’m sorry”.  But this should be a choice that is not coerced. Try to have the child generate some ideas and you can add a couple of choices, too. When a child has made a choice and has carried out an effective apology-in-action, be sure to offer plenty of positive feedback! As time goes by, children will get used to this idea and with enough practice, they will not need as much guidance. Remember that the ultimate goal is to develop a classroom in which the children care about each other and feel that they are cared for too, so the goal should be on repairing relationships, rather than an insincere, mumbled apology.

For more detailed information about Apology-In-Action, (and many other wonderful ideas for starting the school year) see The First Six Weeks of School by Denton & Kriete. Do you have any examples of using Apology-in-Action in your classroom? Please share!