Understanding and Making an Apology

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When teaching children to apologize, it’s important they understand exactly what the words mean: an acknowledgment of responsibility and reflection of remorse (Roberts, 2007). Often children will apologize for something but it may seem that they are not genuinely sorry. They understand it is the right thing to do and then they move on, feeling that the apology has fixed everything. “I’m sorry” and “That’s okay” become a formality without any real purpose attached, and apologies begin to lose their meaning and sincerity. But the apology doesn’t make things “right” again, and relationships are not strengthened.

By building a child’s empathy and assertiveness—two of the concepts behind social and emotional learning—children learn what an apology is and how to offer one properly, and move toward more compassionate and caring relationships.

Explanations of what an apology is should be developmentally appropriate. For elementary school students and younger children, keep it simple: an apology means showing someone that you know your actions affected them. For middle school students, take it a step further: an apology means recognizing that your actions hurt the other person and showing remorse for the harm done.

Once a child understands what an apology means, the process for delivering a genuine, effective apology can be broken down into three steps (Carter, 2015).

3 Steps to an Effective Apology

  1. Express remorse
    Apologies are more effective when the remorse felt is directly expressed. Students can be guided to use “I” statements that express regret. For example, if a child hurt someone’s feelings because of a careless joke, suggest that they say:
    “I feel bad that my comment bothered you.”
    “I feel sad that my words hurt your feelings.”
  2. Admit responsibility and show understanding of how you affected the other person.
    Even if intentions were good or the child doesn’t think they did anything wrong, it is important that they take responsibility for hurting someone else. This is especially important for younger children who typically are not yet able to see another’s perspective (Frick, Möhring, & Newcombe, 2014; Cheng, Chen, & Decety, 2014). Teach students how to deliver an effective apology and provide them with appropriate language, such as in the following sentence stems:
    “I know I did ______ and that hurt your feelings. I’m sorry for that.”
    “I see that when I did ______ I upset you, and I’m sorry.”
  3. Offer reparations
    Making the situation right is an important part of an apology. This can be as simple as promising not to repeat the behavior and following through on that promise. To teach students how to offer reparations, try the following:
    Have students add reparations onto their apology sentence stems. For example: “I know I did ______ and that hurt your feelings. I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.”
    Acknowledge that there are times when you may not know what to offer as a reparation. In those situations, leave it open-ended. For example: “I see that when I did ______ I upset you, and I’m sorry. What can I do to make it up to you?”

When students learn actionable steps to offer sincere and genuine apologies, they can build stronger and longer-lasting relationships. By taking responsibility for their actions, students build on the social and emotional touchstones of empathy and assertiveness, allowing them to care for themselves and others with an understanding of how to move forward with compassion.


  • Carter, C. (2015, November 12). The three parts of an effective apology. Greater Good Magazine. Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_three_parts_of_an_effective_apology
  • Cheng, Y., Chen, C., & Decety, J. (2014). An EEG/ERP investigation of the development of empathy in early and middle childhood. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 10(October), 160–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2014.08.012
  • Frick, A., Möhring, W., & Newcombe, N. S. (2014). Picturing perspectives: Development of perspective-taking abilities in 4- to 8-year-olds. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(386). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00386
  • Roberts, R. G. (2007). The art of apology: When and how to seek forgiveness. Family Practice Management, 14(7), 44–49. https://www.aafp.org/fpm/2007/0700/p44.html