Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Saying “I’m sorry” is the least important part of an apology. During my years teaching elementary school, I spent a lot of time negotiating conflicts, but once I taught my students how to apologize well, my burden was significantly lifted.
I once asked my lower elementary students, “If your friend stepped on your hand and said, ‘sooooorrry,’ (in a sing-song and insincere tone), how would you feel?
“I”d be MAD! I’d tell the teacher!”
“Well, what if your friend stepped on your hand and said,
‘Oh, I stepped on your hand! I bet that hurts. Can I bring you some ice, or do you want me to carry your books for you? Next time I’ll watch where I’m going. I’m really sorry.’
Would you still be mad and tell the teacher?”
“No, I’d tell my friend, ‘It’s ok. It doesn’t hurt that much. Don’t worry about it. I’m fine!’”
A sincere apology includes:
Acknowledging and describing the wrongdoing or the mistake. I stepped on your hand.
Acknowledging the impact. I bet that hurts.
An offer of restitution. Can I bring you some ice, or do you want me to carry your books for you?
A commitment to change Next time I’ll watch where I’m going.
Finally, an apology. I’m really sorry.
A few years later, I modified the lesson as a writing assignment for slightly older, gifted students. Some took the assignment very seriously. One student’s letter brought her mother to tears.
This morning, you asked me to hold the flowers we had bought for Ms.H for her birthday. I put them on the floor of the car and the dog stepped on them. (Description of the wrongdoing) I know you spent a lot of money on the flowers and now they are ruined and Ms. H won’t get nice flowers for her birthday. (Impact) Even though they will be late, I’ll pay for new flowers to give her tomorrow. (Restitution) And next time, I’ll do what you tell me and hold the flowers instead of putting them on the floor. (Commitment to change) I’m really sorry. (The apology)
Her mom brought the letter to me to ask what prompted her daughter to write it. After I explained the assignment, Mom used the same five steps to apologize to her daughter for yelling at her in the car.
Of course, some students put their own spin on the assignment. “Yes,” I told them, “fictional letters were fine, as long as they included all the components.” One turned in an apology from the wife of Al Capone to the widow of one of his victims. Another wrote an apology to The United States of America from Led Zeppelin for their use of satanic lyrics in their songs. Gifted students are an interesting challenge to teach, but that’s a topic for another blog post!
A 5-part apology, when offered sincerely, works well, not just in the classroom, but among siblings, partners and colleagues. Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you!