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

McCarthy and her co-author, Marjorie Ingall, are also the pens behind SorryWatch, a website that analyzes apologies in the news, pop culture and history. SorryWatch is full of examples of bad apologies, such as actors who tweet “I’m sorry if,” athletes who make excuses with their apologies, and corporations that issue apology statements without ever naming what happened. Good apologies are rare, but they don’t have to be. “The nice thing about good apologies is that the form is actually really simple. It’s the doing it that is hard, not the steps themselves,” said Ingall.

Like most hard things, apologizing is easier when you’ve had practice. In Freedman’s fifth grade class, she teaches seven steps to a meaningful apology. Her lessons were inspired by a sketchnote by educator Sylvia Duckworth, ideas about ‘brave spaces’ from educator Kenneth Shelton, and a podcast episode with psychologist Harriet Lerner and author Brené Brown.

Thanks @sylviaduckworth @BreneBrown @HarrietLerner 4 inspiring this conversation 2 have w/Ss. I’ve been planning a lesson on how to apologize & @MindShiftKQED post gave me the kick I needed. @SlidesManiaSM TY for your template! #remotelearning #ditchbook https://t.co/etmeZxl4em https://t.co/V39R9KADAg

— Rayna Freedman, Ed.D (@rlfreedm) December 27, 2020

Freedman teaches the lessons during morning meetings, a period when her class does community-building activities. She covers one step per day, and students role-play with made-up scenarios, such as tripping a classmate at recess or plagiarizing their homework.

For most students, steps like saying why their behavior was wrong and asking “How can I make this better?” are new terrain. “Just getting them to talk and have a conversation about it and be in that driver’s seat to practice is huge because you can’t just teach them a step and then not actually have them practice it and use it,” Freedman said.

In addition to role-playing, students discuss why the steps matter, what bad apologies sound like, and how it feels to receive good and bad apologies. They also talk about the difference between when they want to apologize and when they’re told to apologize. For Freedman, that’s important because there’s no point in apologizing if they haven’t truly accepted responsibility. It’s also important because not every instance someone demands or expects an apology from another person is valid. Freedman can still remember the injustice of being required to apologize for things she didn’t do as a kid or where her feelings weren’t being heard.

“There are times where the adults do need to listen to kids and what they’re saying and what they’re feeling. And kids need to be empowered and know that they have a voice and be able to share that voice,” she said.

McCarthy and Ingall said that not listening to kids is one of several common mistakes adults make when teaching (or telling) kids to say “I’m sorry.” Others include:

  • Not modeling good apologies. This can mean giving bad apologies or just doing their apologies in private where kids don’t get to see and hear them.
  • Scolding children after they’ve apologized. This creates an association in the child’s memory between apologizing and being reprimanded, making them less inclined to apologize in the future.
  • Requiring kids to kiss or hug after an apology. “Apologies are with words, not with touching,” said Ingall.

Showing up with bravery

Throughout her lessons, Freedman shares apology examples from her own life. She said that hearing her stories and each others’ experiences is validating for students. It also normalizes screwing up sometimes while building skills to move forward from those mistakes.

“I think the whole thing with going through this is [that] it’s humbling, right?” she said. “It’s teaching people to accept responsibility for something they’ve done. And not everybody can do that.” After these lessons, her fifth graders can. Freedman has seen students put the steps into practice in her classroom and on the playground. She’s also heard about her students teaching other kids or family members how to apologize better.

Samantha Huffenus, mom to one of Freedman’s recent students, said she’d noticed the difference in her son. “Caleb has actually gotten much better about apologizing just in the very, very recent past,” she said a few months after the lessons. “He used to send text messages when he felt like he owed an apology to one of us, usually his dad or I. And the other day he came downstairs and he apologized [for something] and he accepted it.”

The face-to-face acknowledgement made the apology feel more genuine, Huffenus said. For his part, Caleb said that the steps he learned in class feel better than a hasty, two-word apology. “I feel like the person appreciates it much more, that I actually care about saying sorry,” he said.

There’s one step in the seven from Freedman’s lessons that McCarthy and Ingall, the SorryWatch writers, disagree with. It’s asking forgiveness, which they leave out of their own guidance for a good apology. “We think forgiveness is a gift to be granted. And it’s rude to ask for a gift,” Ingall explained. That difference aside, the authors find it encouraging to see teachers bringing apologies lessons into classrooms. “Apologies are an essential part of building the world we want to live in,” Ingall said. “And I would hope that parents and teachers can work together on creating this kind of much more civilized, beautiful world.”

That sentiment echoes Freedman’s vision for her classroom. Her apologies lessons are part of a year-long effort to prompt students to reflect on how they show up in school, at home and in their community. She models showing up in brave and honest ways by sharing her own mistakes and apologizing to students when necessary. And she hopes the effects of these lessons will carry on when students leave her classroom.

“I feel that I am teaching kids life skills beyond how to solve a math problem or how to read and decode a text,” she said. “Those are the things that – state standards, Common Core – that we have to teach. But I teach humans.”

Humans make mistakes. And to make things better, humans apologize.


Episode Transcript

[Music]

Kara Newhouse: Welcome to MindShift, where we explore the future of learning and how we raise our kids. I’m Kara Newhouse.

Nimah Gobir: And I’m Nimah Gobir.

Kara Newhouse: Today we’re talking about something that isn’t usually in school curriculum: how to say “I’m sorry.”

Nimah Gobir: Students don’t get graded for it, but apologizing is a learned skill. And it can be hard.

Fonzie: Richie, I am sincerely ssss … [Laughter]

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

Fonzie: Good. I won’t.

Kara Newhouse: That was Fonzie in the classic sitcom Happy Days. In the show, his inability to say “sorry” was a running joke. But it’s true that a lot of people have trouble saying those words.

Nimah Gobir: And that’s not the only way to mess up an apology.

Kara Newhouse: We’ve all heard bad apologies. Someone might say they’re sorry but never say what for…

Justin Timberlake: What occurred was unintentional…

Nimah Gobir: They might apologize for someone else’s feelings, instead of their own actions.

Brittany Dawn Davis: I apologize to anyone who feels like they got scammed from me.

Kara Newhouse: They might try to justify their actions. Or soften their admission of responsibility by saying this isn’t really who they are.

Chris Brown: I have tried to live my life in a way which can make those around me proud of me, and until recently, I think I was doing a pretty good job.

Nimah Gobir: Those clips were from apologies by pop singer Justin Timberlake, fitness influencer Brittany Dawn and R&B singer Chris Brown. Kids hear bad apologies on TV, in the news, and in their own lives all the time. And they aren’t usually taught how to do it better.

Kara Newhouse: But there’s hope. In today’s episode we’ll learn the elements of a good apology, and we’ll meet a fifth grade teacher who’s helping her students learn the right way to say “I’m sorry.” That’s all after the break.

[Music]

Kara Newhouse: Psychologists and researchers have developed a variety of models for how to give a good apology.

Nimah Gobir: They all have a few things in common.

Kara Newhouse: Acknowledging what happened and the harm it caused. Actually saying “I’m sorry.” Offering a way to repair harm. And committing to not repeat the behavior.

Nimah Gobir: Kara, we already heard some examples of what bad apologies sound like. Let’s hear a good example.

Kara Newhouse: I talked to Eva Lewis, who works in public engagement for state government. She told me about a pretty big mistake she made as a senior in college. She was supposed to write an honors thesis analyzing foreign aid to developing countries.

Eva Lewis: I thought I had a resource that had the data I needed for those 40 countries. But then when I got into the data, it did not. It only had like 28 of the countries and there was missing data.

Kara Newhouse: She told her professor. The professor notified the academic dean that Eva was at risk of not finishing her thesis. Eva was … stressed.

Eva Lewis: So my sister gave me a good point. She’s like, ‘Hey, go talk to the academic dean, apologize and talk about how you’re going to rectify it.’ And me, I would have never thought about this. So I made an appointment with the academic dean, and as soon as I sat down with her, I said, ‘Hey, I just wanna apologize. Like, I didn’t do what I needed to do. I should have looked at the data before – completely – before saying I was going to do this and that, this and that.

Kara Newhouse: The dean was surprised. She’d heard plenty of excuses from students in her career. But apologies? Not so much.

Eva Lewis: And she just stared at me. She was like. No one’s ever. No one’s ever done that.

Kara Newhouse: Eva worked out a plan to narrow the focus of her thesis and find some additional data.

Kara Newhouse: Did you graduate?

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

Nimah Gobir: Kara, that does sound like a pretty good apology. She acknowledged what she’d done wrong, actually said ‘I’m sorry,’ and made a plan to fix the problem.

Kara Newhouse: The other thing I love about Eva’s story is that her sister suggested she apologize AND gave her tips for how to do it. Most of us don’t get models like that as kids or even as young adults.

Susan McCarthy: I think there are lots of people who just think of apology as something that, that mean people force you to do. Now they’re a grown up. Nobody can make them apologize and they’re not going to.

Kara Newhouse: That’s Susan McCarthy. She’s one of the creators of SorryWatch, a website that analyzes apologies in the news, pop culture and history.

Susan McCarthy: We take them apart and we say, ‘This is good and here’s why. This is bad and here’s why.’ It turns out that there’s a big appetite out there for ‘Why did that apology not leave me feeling good?’

Kara Newhouse: Susan and her SorryWatch partner, Marjorie Ingall, also wrote a book. It’s called Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies. In one chapter, Susan and Marjorie write about the things grown-ups get wrong when dealing with children and apologies.

Nimah Gobir: Sometimes when a parent or a teacher just wants kids to stop fighting, they’ll tell everyone involved to say “sorry” without finding out what really happened.

Kara Newhouse: It takes longer, but when adults make time and space to listen to children who are fighting, the kids can feel heard. That makes it more likely that when they do say “I’m sorry,” they’ll mean it.

Nimah Gobir: Another thing that grown-ups often do is lecture kids after they’ve already apologized.

Kara Newhouse: Susan compared this to a mistake new dog owners make. Imagine you’ve got an energetic puppy running around, and it doesn’t come when you call it. You call its name a few times, and when it finally comes…you yell “bad dog!”

Susan McCarthy: You’re not rewarding the dog for coming. You’re punishing it for coming. So the next time the dog goes, ‘ehh, she’s calling me, but she’s just going to get mad at me, so I’ll just stay out of arm’s reach.’

Nimah Gobir: So when an adult scolds a child after they’ve apologized, it creates a link in the child’s brain between saying “sorry” and that negative reaction.

Kara Newhouse: Marjorie, Susan’s co-author, suggested a better way to respond.

Marjorie Ingall: When a kid apologizes to you, even though you’re angry for the thing that the kid is apologizing for, you know, I think we have to take a step back and have the first response be, ‘Thank you for apologizing. I know that was difficult. Where do you think we go from here?’

[Music]

Nimah Gobir: Kara, everything we’ve talked about so far is about how to respond after a problem occurs. What can we do to proactively teach kids about apologies before they need to give one?

Kara Newhouse: Nimah, we don’t usually think about it this way, but learning social-emotional skills is like playing a sport or an instrument. You need to learn some basics and practice in a supportive setting before you can apply it when the stakes are higher.

I met a fifth grade teacher who is creating that kind of learning space for her students. Because it’s hard to teach this sort of lesson in the heat of the moment.

Rayna Freedman: I hear a lot of “I’m sorry.” And then they move on. But the other person’s still sitting there like, “What is happening?”

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Rayna Freedman teaches at Jordan Jackson Elementary School in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Since fifth grade is the final year before middle school, it’s her job to prepare students for that. She sees this goal as more than just academic.

Rayna Freedman: I feel that I am teaching kids life skills beyond how to solve a math problem or how to read and decode a text. Those are the things that state standards, right, Common Core, that we have to teach. But I teach humans.

Kara Newhouse: One of the ways this idea of “teaching humans” comes into play is during morning meetings. That’s when the class does activities that Dr. Freedman designed to help her fifth graders figure out who they want to be in the world.

Rayna Freedman: We do a lot of talking about what a brave space is. We read this poem from Facing History & Ourselves that talks about how there’s no such thing as a safe space, that there’s only brave spaces, and standing up and being honest and reflective in those spaces.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman’s students explore topics like kindness and community. They share their passions and their dreams. And for two weeks in January, they learn how to say “I’m sorry” in a meaningful way.

Rayna Freedman: We really start off with discussing like when you’re told to apologize and then when you want to apologize, which are two different things that are – the kids are taken aback when we start.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman uses a seven step model for apologies. One of her students, Caleb Huffenus, got a lot out of the lessons, so he’ll help share the steps.

[Music]

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

Caleb Huffenus: “I’m sorry for…”

Rayna Freedman: Before moving on to step two, which is saying why it was wrong.

Caleb Huffenus: It was wrong because…

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

Caleb Huffenus: I accept full responsibility for what I did/said.

Rayna Freedman: And then asking how to make amends is step four, which gets into having a conversation with the person, because you recognize that that other person’s hurt.

Caleb Huffenus: How can I make this better?

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

Caleb Huffenus: Moving forward, I promise to…

Rayna Freedman: The sixth step is asking for forgiveness.

Caleb Huffenus: Will you accept my apology?

Rayna Freedman: The seventh step is to thank the person they’re talking to about validating the other person for bringing whatever it was to their attention.

Caleb Huffenus: Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Kara Newhouse: The students role-play each step with scenarios, like tripping a classmate at recess or plagiarizing their homework.

Rayna Freedman: Just getting them to talk and have a conversation about it is huge.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman teaches one step per day. After all the role-playing, the class spends a few days discussing good and bad apologies.

Rayna Freedman: A lot of them had no idea there was more to it than “I’m sorry.” In fact, all of them. And then when we got into what’s not an apology, you hear the snickers because you know that that’s what they’ve been doing.

Kara Newhouse: The students also write down some of their reflections. Here’s what one of them wrote.

Child actor [Nico Yuen]: Sometimes I feel under pressure because I did something and I don’t want to accept full responsibility. I try to do it, but I don’t have the guts to do it sometimes. But from now on, I’m going to accept responsibility.

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

Kara Newhouse: When I talked to Caleb, who gave us the apology steps earlier, he said that before these lessons he’d never done most of the steps. Like number five, promising not to repeat the mistake. Now, he thinks that’s important.

Caleb Huffenus: Because if you don’t commit to not doing this again, they might think that you would do that again to them and might not stay friends with you.

Kara Newhouse: Caleb noticed that when classmates used these steps, their apologies felt more sincere. It made a difference when he apologized to others, too.

Caleb Huffenus: I feel like the person appreciates it much more that I actually care about saying sorry. And not just saying sorry and being over with it.

Kara Newhouse: Caleb’s mom, Samantha Huffenus, noticed a difference in her fifth grader, too.

Samantha Huffenus: Caleb has actually gotten much better about apologizing. Just in the very, very recent past. I’ve noticed a really big change. He used to send text messages when he felt like he owed an apology to one of us, usually his dad or I. And the other day he came downstairs and he apologized and he, he accepted it.

Samantha Huffenus: It really made a huge difference because before it kind of just seemed like he did it because he felt like he should say something, either because he was in trouble and and knew he should apologize or whatever the case may be. But coming down and actually, you know, doing some of those steps that he learned really made a difference to me, receiving the apology and making it seem a lot more genuine.

Nimah Gobir: So Kara, Caleb was able to do something a lot of adults don’t do – apologize face to face.

[Music]

Kara Newhouse: He’s not the only one. In the three years she’s taught these lessons, Dr. Freedman has heard from other parents who noticed their children using these steps with their siblings. She’s also heard from other teachers about her students apologizing to kids at recess. 

Nimah Gobir: Often when kids hurt someone or break a rule, they get caught up in the fear and shame that comes from knowing they did something wrong. They’re thinking “Am I going to get in trouble?” … And, “How can I avoid getting in trouble?” 

Kara Newhouse: Learning how to apologize gives them a different path forward.

Rayna Freedman: And so these types of lessons really build empathy in kids because now they’re able to clearly understand that even though I don’t, I might not realize I did something wrong, I still hurt this other human being somehow.

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman has even heard about her students using what they learned to advocate for themselves when they’re being treated unfairly.

Rayna Freedman: I’ve heard it from families before where at the dinner table, the child is teaching them, ‘No, you don’t apologize like that.’ Like ‘That’s too rushed. You’re not listening to me and my feelings.’

Kara Newhouse: Good apologies require empathy, perspective-taking, honesty and courage – all things that schools and parents try to cultivate in children.

Dr. Freedman said that teaching these lessons has made her more intentional about her own apologies. She stopped saying sorry for things just because someone told her to, and she’s conscious of modeling true apologies to her students.

Rayna Freedman: I’ve had to do some big apologies. Right? Like things even to kids. Like, ‘I did not know that this could have been taken this way. And let’s talk about what that means and how it makes you feel. And, you know, I’m going to accept responsibility and I am not going to use those words anymore.’

Kara Newhouse: Dr. Freedman created the apologies lessons in 2020, after going through several years of diversity, equity and inclusion training. That work helped her reflect on things she had said or done in the past that were hurtful or offensive, even if she didn’t know it at the time.

Rayna Freedman: If we could all apologize when we say things like that to people who are different than us, regardless of if it’s religion, political, sex, gender, whatever it is, we’d probably be in a better place. And that’s being in the brave space, right?

Kara Newhouse: When grown-ups model humility and give kids tools to put apologies into action, they can help young people be in the brave space at school, at home, and as they grow into the future.

[Music]

Kara Newhouse: Thank you to Rayna Freedman, Caleb and Samantha Huffenus, Susan McCarthy, Marjorie Ingall, and Eva Lewis. Thanks also to Nico Yuen for reading the student reflection. The MindShift team includes 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 Manager. Audience Engagement Support from Cesar Saldaña. Holly Kernan is KQED’s Chief Content Officer.


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