Teaching Students How to Apologize


How do you say you're sorry and really mean it?
How do you apologize with your whole heart?
What is the difference between intent and impact?

These are questions I asked my fifth graders this morning. I asked one after another and offered space for students to listen and absorb the words. This conversation followed incidents of bathroom vandalism. While I am not certain who was involved, I seized the opportunity to examine the effects our actions have on others. Specifically I wanted them to understand that these actions mean more work for our already under-staffed, over-worked and generous custodial staff. I am not sure if students see that connection.

I once heard the daughter of a famous news anchor tell a story illustrating the impact of our actions. I believe it was Tom Brokaw’s or maybe Dan Rathers’ daughter and I think I heard it on CBS Sunday morning. (I’ve searched and have yet to find it. Maybe someone will recognize it here and let me know ?!) Anyway, when the daughter was in high school, she threw a party in her family’s doorman apartment building in New York City. When her father found out, he did not reprimand her simply for throwing a party but for having made extra work for the doorman on duty. For each time a guest entered the building, the doorman had to call up to the apartment, let the daughter know who arrived and let the guest into the building while managing his duties at the front desk. In short, the doorman paid the price of the party. The new anchor’s daughter told this story as a way to illustrate her dad’s awareness and thoughtfulness. She confessed that the burden she placed on the doorman that night never crossed her mind.

Maybe, like this news anchor, our job as teachers and parents is to make kids aware of the impact of their actions. Perhaps like this teenage daughter, our students’ questions go no further than “ Will I get caught? Will I get in trouble? Will my friends like me if I do or don’t do this thing?” Their thinking stops short of considering those who have to, in some cases, literally clean up their messes?

A few way to cultivate awareness, apologize and generate appreciation of others

This is a growing list but here are a few ideas...

1. In a conversation about kindness, declare: “Kindness is saying you are sorry with your whole heart.” Name what that looks like and sounds like.

2. While exploring writing identities add this statement: “I am a writer who writes to process life and my actions. When I make mistakes, I write letters and apologize with my whole heart.” And then write some notes of apology. I leave notecards in our writing center for this purpose.

3. Consider the meaning of the words: “I see you”. We want children to move through life bearing witness to the value of those around them. Name and express gratitude to those whose efforts we do not always see but who enrich our lives. A few examples include grocery store workers, postal workers, garbage collectors, and yes, the custodians who clean our classroom at night.

What ideas do you have for helping to build students' awareness of their actions! Please share! I’d be so grateful to learn with you!

2 thoughts on “Teaching Students How to Apologize”

  1. Our students love our custodians. They know their names and they exchange greetings in the hallways. Having them write notes of apology to the custodians is a meaningful way to respond to this incident. We need to lead students to empathy. It’s not something that is natural to many kids.

  2. Kudos to you for guiding your students through this. I agree with you, I don’t think kids think about the impact it makes on others and it’s important for them to learn to make it right. Years ago, I reminded students about cleaning up after themselves in the cafeteria. One student replied, “It’s their [custodians’] job to clean up.” I pointed it out that yes, that is their job, but students also need to be responsible for cleaning up after themselves. They have families they need to get home to at the end of the day. Definitely something that didn’t cross their minds.

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