Teaching kids the right way to say ‘I’m sorry’

McCarthy and her co-author, Marjorie Ingall, are additionally the pens behind SorryWatch, an internet site that analyzes apologies within the information, popular culture and historical past. SorryWatch is stuffed with examples of unhealthy apologies, comparable to actors who tweet “I’m sorry if,” athletes who make excuses with their apologies, and firms that problem apology statements without ever naming what happened. Good apologies are uncommon, however they don’t must be. “The great factor about good apologies is that the shape is definitely actually easy. It’s the doing it that’s onerous, not the steps themselves,” mentioned Ingall.

Like most onerous issues, apologizing is less complicated while you’ve had observe. In Freedman’s fifth grade class, she teaches seven steps to a significant apology. Her classes have been impressed by a sketchnote by educator Sylvia Duckworth and a podcast episode with psychologist Harriet Lerner and author Brené Brown.

Freedman teaches the teachings throughout morning conferences, a interval when her class does community-building actions. She covers one step per day, and college students role-play with made-up situations, comparable to tripping a classmate at recess or plagiarizing their homework.

For many college students, steps like saying why their habits was mistaken and asking “How can I make this higher?” are new terrain. “Simply getting them to speak and have a dialog about it and be in that driver’s seat to observe is large as a result of you’ll be able to’t simply educate them a step after which not even have them observe it and use it,” Freedman mentioned.

Along with role-playing, college students talk about why the steps matter, what unhealthy apologies sound like, and the way it feels to obtain good and unhealthy apologies. Additionally they discuss in regards to the distinction between once they need to apologize and once they’re advised to apologize. For Freedman, that’s essential as a result of there’s no level in apologizing in the event that they haven’t actually accepted duty. It’s additionally essential as a result of not each occasion somebody calls for or expects an apology from one other particular person is legitimate. Freedman can nonetheless keep in mind the injustice of being required to apologize for issues she didn’t do as a child or the place her emotions weren’t being heard.

“There are occasions the place the adults do must hearken to youngsters and what they’re saying and what they’re feeling. And children have to be empowered and know that they’ve a voice and be capable of share that voice,” she mentioned.

McCarthy and Ingall mentioned that not listening to youngsters is one in every of a number of widespread errors adults make when instructing (or telling) youngsters to say “I’m sorry.” Others embrace:

  • Not modeling good apologies. This may imply giving unhealthy apologies or simply doing their apologies in personal the place youngsters don’t get to see and listen to them.
  • Scolding kids after they’ve apologized. This creates an affiliation within the little one’s reminiscence between apologizing and being reprimanded, making them much less inclined to apologize sooner or later.
  • Requiring youngsters to kiss or hug after an apology. “Apologies are with phrases, not with touching,” mentioned Ingall.

Displaying up with bravery

All through her classes, Freedman shares apology examples from her personal life. She mentioned that listening to her tales and every others’ experiences is validating for college kids. It additionally normalizes screwing up typically whereas constructing abilities to maneuver ahead from these errors.

“I feel the entire thing with going via that is [that] it’s humbling, proper?” she mentioned. “It’s instructing folks to simply accept duty for one thing they’ve accomplished. And never everyone can do this.” After these classes, her fifth graders can. Freedman has seen college students put the steps into observe in her classroom and on the playground. She’s additionally heard about her college students instructing different youngsters or members of the family the right way to apologize higher.

Samantha Huffenus, mother to one in every of Freedman’s latest college students, mentioned she’d seen the distinction in her son. “Caleb has truly gotten a lot better about apologizing simply within the very, very latest previous,” she mentioned a couple of months after the teachings. “He used to ship textual content messages when he felt like he owed an apology to one in every of us, often his dad or I. And the opposite day he got here downstairs and he apologized [for something] and he accepted it.”

The face-to-face acknowledgement made the apology really feel extra real, Huffenus mentioned. For his half, Caleb mentioned that the steps he realized at school really feel higher than a hasty, two-word apology. “I really feel just like the particular person appreciates it way more, that I truly care about saying sorry,” he mentioned.

There’s one step within the seven from Freedman’s classes that McCarthy and Ingall, the SorryWatch writers, disagree with. It’s asking forgiveness, which they pass over of their very own guidance for a good apology. “We expect forgiveness is a present to be granted. And it’s impolite to ask for a present,” Ingall defined. That distinction apart, the authors discover it encouraging to see lecturers bringing apologies classes into school rooms. “Apologies are an important a part of constructing the world we need to dwell in,” Ingall mentioned. “And I’d hope that folks and lecturers can work collectively on creating this type of way more civilized, lovely world.”

That sentiment echoes Freedman’s imaginative and prescient for her classroom. Her apologies classes are a part of a year-long effort to immediate college students to mirror on how they present up in class, at dwelling and of their group. She fashions exhibiting up in courageous and sincere methods by sharing her personal errors and apologizing to students when vital. And she or he hopes the results of those classes will keep it up when college students depart her classroom.

“I really feel that I’m instructing youngsters life abilities past the right way to resolve a math drawback or the right way to learn and decode a textual content,” she mentioned. “These are the issues that – state requirements, Widespread Core – that we’ve to show. However I educate people.”

People make errors. And to make issues higher, people apologize.

Episode Transcript


Kara Newhouse: Welcome to MindShift, the place we discover the way forward for studying and the way we elevate our youngsters. I’m Kara Newhouse.

Nimah Gobir: And I’m Nimah Gobir.

Kara Newhouse: As we speak we’re speaking about one thing that isn’t often in class curriculum: the right way to say “I’m sorry.”

Nimah Gobir: College students don’t get graded for it, however apologizing is a realized talent. And it may be onerous.

Fonzie: Richie, I’m sincerely ssss … [Laughter]

Richie: Fonz, you don’t must say ‘I’m sorry.’

Fonzie: Good. I received’t.

Kara Newhouse: That was Fonzie within the basic sitcom Glad Days. Within the present, his incapacity to say “sorry” was a working joke. But it surely’s true that lots of people have bother saying these phrases.

Nimah Gobir: And that’s not the one option to mess up an apology.

Kara Newhouse: We’ve all heard unhealthy apologies. Somebody may say they’re sorry however by no means say what for…

Justin Timberlake: What occurred was unintentional…

Nimah Gobir: They could apologize for another person’s emotions, as an alternative of their very own actions.

Brittany Daybreak Davis: I apologize to anybody who seems like they obtained scammed from me.

Kara Newhouse: They could attempt to justify their actions. Or soften their admission of duty by saying this isn’t actually who they’re.

Chris Brown: I’ve tried to dwell my life in a method which might make these round me pleased with me, and till lately, I feel I used to be doing a fairly good job.

Nimah Gobir: These clips have been from apologies by pop singer Justin Timberlake, health influencer Brittany Daybreak and R&B singer Chris Brown. Children hear unhealthy apologies on TV, within the information, and in their very own lives on a regular basis. And so they aren’t often taught the right way to do it higher.

Kara Newhouse: However there’s hope. In at the moment’s episode we’ll study the weather of an excellent apology, and we’ll meet a fifth grade instructor who’s serving to her college students study the precise option to say “I’m sorry.” That’s all after the break.


Kara Newhouse: Psychologists and researchers have developed quite a lot of fashions for the right way to give an excellent apology.

Nimah Gobir: All of them have a couple of issues in widespread.

Kara Newhouse: Acknowledging what occurred and the hurt it prompted. Truly saying “I’m sorry.” Providing a option to restore hurt. And committing to not repeat the habits.

Nimah Gobir: Kara, we already heard some examples of what unhealthy apologies sound like. Let’s hear an excellent instance.

Kara Newhouse: I talked to Eva Lewis, who works in public engagement for state authorities. She advised me about a reasonably large mistake she made as a senior in faculty. She was supposed to jot down an honors thesis analyzing overseas assist to growing international locations.

Eva Lewis: I assumed I had a useful resource that had the info I wanted for these 40 international locations. However then once I obtained into the info, it didn’t. It solely had like 28 of the international locations and there was lacking information.

Kara Newhouse: She advised her professor. The professor notified the educational dean that Eva was vulnerable to not ending her thesis. Eva was … careworn.

Eva Lewis: So my sister gave me an excellent level. She’s like, ‘Hey, go discuss to the educational dean, apologize and discuss the way you’re going to rectify it.’ And me, I’d have by no means thought of this. So I made an appointment with the educational dean, and as quickly as I sat down along with her, I mentioned, ‘Hey, I simply wanna apologize. Like, I didn’t do what I wanted to do. I ought to have regarded on the information earlier than – utterly – earlier than saying I used to be going to do that and that, this and that.

Kara Newhouse: The dean was shocked. She’d heard loads of excuses from college students in her profession. However apologies? Not a lot.

Eva Lewis: And she or he simply stared at me. She was like. Nobody’s ever. Nobody’s ever accomplished that.

Kara Newhouse: Eva labored out a plan to slim the main focus of her thesis and discover some further information.

Kara Newhouse: Did you graduate?

Eva Lewis: Sure, I did. With honors. [laughter]

Nimah Gobir: Kara, that does sound like a fairly good apology. She acknowledged what she’d accomplished mistaken, truly mentioned ‘I’m sorry,’ and made a plan to repair the issue.

Kara Newhouse: The opposite factor I really like about Eva’s story is that her sister recommended she apologize AND gave her ideas for the right way to do it. Most of us don’t get fashions like that as youngsters and even as younger adults.

Susan McCarthy: I feel there are many individuals who simply consider apology as one thing that, that imply folks power you to do. Now they’re a grown up. No one could make them apologize and so they’re not going to.

Kara Newhouse: That’s Susan McCarthy. She’s one of many creators of SorryWatch, an internet site that analyzes apologies within the information, popular culture and historical past.

Susan McCarthy: We take them aside and we are saying, ‘That is good and right here’s why. That is unhealthy and right here’s why.’ It seems that there’s a giant urge for food on the market for ‘Why did that apology not depart me feeling good?’

Kara Newhouse: Susan and her SorryWatch associate, Marjorie Ingall, additionally wrote a ebook. It’s known as Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies. In a single chapter, Susan and Marjorie write in regards to the issues grown-ups get mistaken when coping with kids and apologies.

Nimah Gobir: Typically when a mum or dad or a instructor simply desires youngsters to cease combating, they’ll inform everybody concerned to say “sorry” with out discovering out what actually occurred.

Kara Newhouse: It takes longer, however when adults make time and area to hearken to kids who’re combating, the children can really feel heard. That makes it extra possible that once they do say “I’m sorry,” they’ll imply it.

Nimah Gobir: One other factor that grown-ups usually do is lecture youngsters after they’ve already apologized.

Kara Newhouse: Susan in contrast this to a mistake new canine house owners make. Think about you’ve obtained an lively pet working round, and it doesn’t come while you name it. You name its title a couple of instances, and when it lastly comes…you yell “unhealthy canine!”

Susan McCarthy: You’re not rewarding the canine for coming. You’re punishing it for coming. So the following time the canine goes, ‘ehh, she’s calling me, however she’s simply going to get mad at me, so I’ll simply keep out of arm’s attain.’

Nimah Gobir: So when an grownup scolds a baby after they’ve apologized, it creates a hyperlink within the little one’s mind between saying “sorry” and that destructive response.

Kara Newhouse: Marjorie, Susan’s co-author, recommended a greater option to reply.

Marjorie Ingall: When a child apologizes to you, although you’re offended for the factor that the child is apologizing for, , I feel we’ve to take a step again and have the primary response be, ‘Thanks for apologizing. I do know that was troublesome. The place do you suppose we go from right here?’


Nimah Gobir: Kara, the whole lot we’ve talked about up to now is about the right way to reply after an issue happens. What can we do to proactively educate youngsters about apologies earlier than they should give one?

Kara Newhouse: Nimah, we don’t often give it some thought this fashion, however studying social-emotional abilities is like enjoying a sport or an instrument. It is advisable study some fundamentals and observe in a supportive setting earlier than you’ll be able to apply it when the stakes are increased.

I met a fifth grade instructor who’s creating that form of studying area for her college students. As a result of it’s onerous to show this type of lesson within the warmth of the second.

Rayna Freedman: I hear numerous “I’m sorry.” After which they transfer on. However the different particular person’s nonetheless sitting there like, “What is going on?”

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Rayna Freedman teaches at Jordan Jackson Elementary Faculty in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Since fifth grade is the ultimate yr earlier than center faculty, it’s her job to arrange college students for that. She sees this aim as extra than simply tutorial.

Rayna Freedman: I really feel that I’m instructing youngsters life abilities past the right way to resolve a math drawback or the right way to learn and decode a textual content. These are the issues that state requirements, proper, Widespread Core, that we’ve to show. However I educate people.

Kara Newhouse: One of many methods this concept of “instructing people” comes into play is throughout morning conferences. That’s when the category does actions that Dr. Freedman designed to assist her fifth graders work out who they need to be on this planet.

Rayna Freedman: We do numerous speaking about what a courageous area is. We learn this poem from Going through Historical past & Ourselves that talks about how there’s no such factor as a protected area, that there’s solely courageous areas, and standing up and being sincere and reflective in these areas.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman’s college students discover matters like kindness and group. They share their passions and their goals. And for 2 weeks in January, they discover ways to say “I’m sorry” in a significant method.

Rayna Freedman: We actually begin off with discussing like while you’re advised to apologize after which while you need to apologize, that are two various things which might be – the children are greatly surprised once we begin.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman makes use of a seven step mannequin for apologies. One in every of her college students, Caleb Huffenus, obtained so much out of the teachings, so he’ll assist share the steps.


Rayna Freedman: We begin off with saying what you’re sorry for.

Caleb Huffenus: “I’m sorry for…”

Rayna Freedman: Earlier than transferring on to step two, which is saying why it was mistaken.

Caleb Huffenus: It was mistaken as a result of…

Rayna Freedman: Then we go on to the third step, which is accepting full duty. 

Caleb Huffenus: I settle for full duty for what I did/mentioned.

Rayna Freedman: After which asking the right way to make amends is step 4, which will get into having a dialog with the particular person, since you acknowledge that that different particular person’s harm.

Caleb Huffenus: How can I make this higher?

Rayna Freedman: The fifth step is committing to not doing it once more.

Caleb Huffenus: Shifting ahead, I promise to…

Rayna Freedman: The sixth step is asking for forgiveness.

Caleb Huffenus: Will you settle for my apology?

Rayna Freedman: The seventh step is to thank the particular person they’re speaking to about validating the opposite particular person for bringing no matter it was to their consideration.

Caleb Huffenus: Thanks for bringing this to my consideration.

Kara Newhouse: The scholars role-play every step with situations, like tripping a classmate at recess or plagiarizing their homework.

Rayna Freedman: Simply getting them to speak and have a dialog about it’s big.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman teaches one step per day. After all of the role-playing, the category spends a couple of days discussing good and unhealthy apologies.

Rayna Freedman: Plenty of them had no concept there was extra to it than “I’m sorry.” The truth is, all of them. After which once we obtained into what’s not an apology, you hear the snickers as a result of that that’s what they’ve been doing.

Kara Newhouse: The scholars additionally write down a few of their reflections. Right here’s what one in every of them wrote.

Baby actor [Nico Yuen]: Typically I really feel underneath stress as a result of I did one thing and I don’t need to settle for full duty. I attempt to do it, however I don’t have the heart to do it typically. However any further, I’m going to simply accept duty.

Rayna Freedman: And that’s out of the mouth of a fifth grader.

Kara Newhouse: After I talked to Caleb, who gave us the apology steps earlier, he mentioned that earlier than these classes he’d by no means accomplished a lot of the steps. Like quantity 5, promising to not repeat the error. Now, he thinks that’s essential.

Caleb Huffenus: As a result of if you happen to don’t decide to not doing this once more, they may suppose that you’d do this once more to them and won’t keep buddies with you.

Kara Newhouse: Caleb seen that when classmates used these steps, their apologies felt extra honest. It made a distinction when he apologized to others, too.

Caleb Huffenus: I really feel just like the particular person appreciates it way more that I truly care about saying sorry. And never simply saying sorry and being over with it.

Kara Newhouse: Caleb’s mother, Samantha Huffenus, seen a distinction in her fifth grader, too.

Samantha Huffenus: Caleb has truly gotten a lot better about apologizing. Simply within the very, very latest previous. I’ve seen a very huge change. He used to ship textual content messages when he felt like he owed an apology to one in every of us, often his dad or I. And the opposite day he got here downstairs and he apologized and he, he accepted it.

Samantha Huffenus: It actually made an enormous distinction as a result of earlier than it form of simply appeared like he did it as a result of he felt like he ought to say one thing, both as a result of he was in bother and and knew he ought to apologize or regardless of the case could also be. However coming down and really, , doing a few of these steps that he realized actually made a distinction to me, receiving the apology and making it appear much more real.

Nimah Gobir: So Kara, Caleb was capable of do one thing numerous adults don’t do – apologize head to head.


Kara Newhouse: He’s not the one one. Within the three years she’s taught these classes, Dr. Freedman has heard from different mother and father who seen their kids utilizing these steps with their siblings. She’s additionally heard from different lecturers about her college students apologizing to youngsters at recess. 

Nimah Gobir: Usually when youngsters harm somebody or break a rule, they get caught up within the worry and disgrace that comes from understanding they did one thing mistaken. They’re considering “Am I going to get in bother?” … And, “How can I keep away from getting in bother?” 

Kara Newhouse: Studying the right way to apologize provides them a unique path ahead.

Rayna Freedman: And so most of these classes actually construct empathy in youngsters as a result of now they’re capable of clearly perceive that although I don’t, I won’t notice I did one thing mistaken, I nonetheless harm this different human being in some way.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman has even heard about her college students utilizing what they realized to advocate for themselves once they’re being handled unfairly.

Rayna Freedman: I’ve heard it from households earlier than the place on the dinner desk, the kid is instructing them, ‘No, you don’t apologize like that.’ Like ‘That’s too rushed. You’re not listening to me and my emotions.’

Kara Newhouse: Good apologies require empathy, perspective-taking, honesty and braveness – all issues that faculties and oldsters attempt to domesticate in kids.

Dr. Freedman mentioned that instructing these classes has made her extra intentional about her personal apologies. She stopped saying sorry for issues simply because somebody advised her to, and he or she’s aware of modeling true apologies to her college students.

Rayna Freedman: I’ve needed to do some huge apologies. Proper? Like issues even to youngsters. Like, ‘I didn’t know that this might have been taken this fashion. And let’s discuss what meaning and the way it makes you’re feeling. And, , I’m going to simply accept duty and I’m not going to make use of these phrases anymore.’

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman created the apologies classes in 2020, after going via a number of years of range, fairness and inclusion coaching. That work helped her mirror on issues she had mentioned or accomplished prior to now that have been hurtful or offensive, even when she didn’t comprehend it on the time.

Rayna Freedman: If we may all apologize once we say issues like that to people who find themselves completely different than us, no matter if it’s faith, political, intercourse, gender, no matter it’s, we’d in all probability be in a greater place. And that’s being within the courageous area, proper?

Kara Newhouse: When grown-ups mannequin humility and provides youngsters instruments to place apologies into motion, they might help younger folks be within the courageous area in school, at dwelling, and as they develop into the longer term.


Kara Newhouse: Thanks to Rayna Freedman, Caleb and Samantha Huffenus, Susan McCarthy, Marjorie Ingall, and Eva Lewis. Thanks additionally to Nico Yuen for studying the coed reflection. The MindShift crew contains Nimah Gobir, Ki Sung, Marlena Jackson-Retondo, and me, Kara Newhouse.

Our editor is Chris Hambrick. Chris Hoff engineered this episode. Jen Chien is KQED’s director of podcasts. Katie Sprenger is Podcast Operations Supervisor. Viewers Engagement Assist from Cesar Saldaña. Holly Kernan is KQED’s Chief Content material Officer.

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