Teaching Young Children the Power of Apologizing

by Livy Traczyk

Livy TraczykIn my post last month I shared my experience using William Mulcahy’s book, Zach Gets Frustrated, and the rich experience both my students and I had relating to the protagonist’s feelings. Perhaps like a lot of educators reading this post, I underestimated the impact of my lesson that day and assumed my group wouldn’t remember much of the story (we had only read it once, after all) beyond the activity of flying kites. However, not only did the first and second graders smile with genuine delight when they recognized the surly red-headed boy on the cover of Zach Apologizes, they shouted, as if on cue, “Name It! Tame It! Reframe It!”—the strategy they learned in the other book for dealing with frustration.

Like any teacher out there, I felt a great deal of pride in my students, and I mentally thanked William Mulcahy for creating such a likeable and accessible character. With the foundation already set, I launched into the “brotherly shove” scene in the beginning of Zach Apologizes, where he pushes his younger brother for taking his robo-rocket. As when I read them the first Zach book, a collective gasp went through the room as the kids saw a situation they could relate to—this time, Zach’s brother falling to the ground.

This is great! I thought. Clearly my students were excited to talk about Zach and share their own experiences. This lesson is going to rock! I was positive the lesson would continue flowing smoothly.

Until it stopped flowing entirely.

ZachApologizes from FSPNot a single person around my small group table wanted to talk about their own blunders. They looked across at one another, shocked that this person at the head of the table would even ask them to reveal something like that. Did I know they would get in trouble if they told about the time they hit their sister because she ate their Halloween candy? Or hid the Wii controller so their brothers couldn’t play video games anymore? Who was I, anyway, but an adult who never makes mistakes and is always telling them to apologize for theirs.

Then it hit me: Zach’s mom didn’t just storm into his room during his time-out to demand that he apologize. She used an I-statement to get Zach to open up and release his feelings.

So I took the moment to share my own vulnerability with my class. After all, what is the point of using relatable characters to teach our students if we, the teachers, refuse to connect to them ourselves?

I set the book down and walked to the whiteboard.

I created the four-square box Zach’s mom uses in the story to teach Zach how to apologize. In the first box, I gave an example of a time, just the night before, when I reacted badly to a friend telling me she wanted to move away. I wrote the hurtful words I had said in red marker, “That’s stupid, who would want to move there?”

The cool kid with the Mohawk (remember him from my last post?) asked, “Did you really say that?” I turned back to him and said, “Yes, I did, and it really hurt her feelings. And that made me feel really yucky, because I couldn’t take it back.”

Then I went around the table a second time and asked the initial question again: Have you ever said or done something that hurt a person you cared about?

photo (41) courtesy Livy Traczyk Honesty is not only contagious, it is therapeutic. I watched five young people in the room become vulnerable with each other for the second time this semester. Like Zach, we all needed a space to contain our feelings, and a tangible way to confront them so we could learn from our mistakes and move on.

For the next half hour, we chalked the sidewalk with our apologies by following the steps Zach’s mom gave him when he needed to organize his feelings. Then, we spent time listening to one another explain our colorful four-square apology:

1) What we did to hurt someone
2) How the other person felt
3) What we could do better next time
4) How we can make it up to the person

I intentionally left the final step in my box blank so I could solicit thoughts from the group about what I could do to make it up to my friend. The maturity of their answers truly humbled me.

Grabbing a blue piece of chalk, I wrote while they dictated a very simple solution: “I’d like to go, too. Can I come visit?”

And I felt like Zach did: relieved.

What language do you use to talk with your students about apologizing? I believe it’s empowering for students to feel that their input matters to the adults in their lives: I’d love to hear examples of a time when children in your class gave you an idea for how to say sorry!

Livy Traczyk is an author, an illustrator, and a literacy tutor residing in Minneapolis, MN. She holds a bachelor of arts in English literature and creative writing from St. Norbert College. She has published two children’s books with AppleTree Early Learning Institute, where she also taught preK to at-risk children. Livy is currently collaborating with a social worker to create a series of multicultural books based on difficult home life issues, with the goal of providing language, understanding, imagery, and comfort to kids who are often unseen in children’s literature.

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4 Responses to Teaching Young Children the Power of Apologizing

  1. Monica Jackson says:

    I love your posts. I bought the book from the last post and mentioned it on my blog, which is not really an education blog, but your post related to my topic of staying stress-free. Anyway, as a former pre-school teacher, we always talked through situations (using pretty much the same method that you mentioned was in the book). We also had the children draw pictures of how they felt. They would draw themselves with different facial expressions to represent their emotions. Sometimes our facial expressions don’t really match how we feel, but by drawing them out and showing them to others, the kids in class were able to express themselves more accurately. This opened up doorways for discussions about how we can help someone feel better.

  2. Ivy Johnson says:

    One thing I used to have my pre-k students do is that they would have to offer a complete apology. Many times, they realized they needed to apologize but the lack of sincerity kept the other person from feeling better. So an example of this would be on the playground a “friend” would run/slam right into another “friend” and, without barely stopping, yell a quick sorry and keep on playing. I would intervene and slow the train down. Students in my class were taught using the say, show check method how to offer a complete apology. They were taught to say they were sorry and articulate what they were sorry for and wait while the offended party had a chance to respond. Sometimes more dialogue was needed to explain things were just an accident other times a friend just needed a hug from the offender and the two bopped off holding hands in “make-up” bliss.

    I really loved reading about the four-square technique you used and see it as a valuable tool for teaching children how to be humble, empathetic and respectful individuals. So needed in today’s times.

  3. Tanya says:

    I teach my students to say, “I’m sorry that I ________ and I won’t/will try not to do it again.” The other person, if ready to accept the apology says, “I accept your apology” (not “It’s okay”). I also encourage students to SHOW they are sorry by offering to fix it, helping the person up, etc. AND we talk about how even if your actions are accidental, it is still important to apologize for being hurtful (otherwise the person may think that it was done/said on purpose.)

  4. My kindergarten students always enjoyed my real life examples a lot more than I thought they would. That was the biggest lesson I learned this year as a new teacher. I think that it says a lot about kids and what profound thinkers they really are. They never cease to amaze me with the things they say.

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