Unresolved hurt breaks down classroom community and obstructs learning. Should teachers require students to apologize when they’ve behaved unkindly? Yes, and no. Yes, because saying “I’m sorry” is part of bringing about restoration and accepting grace. And yes, because many people do not know how to make a proper or sincere apology.
If a child feels no regret, however, extracting an insincere apology forces that person to tell a lie. The best response--when guilty students appear impenitent--is to help them sense the need to apologize, and remove any obstacles that stand in the way of expressing their regret. But how do we encourage students who are reluctant to apologize?
Remove the Obstacles
Defensiveness is one of the most common apology hurdles; it’s painful to admit we’ve offended someone. Your can mitigate defensiveness by speaking calmly, but the overall climate of your classroom also makes an impact: if your children know they are loved in spite of their shortcomings, confession is easier.
A skill deficit may stand in the way, too. Our students learn by watching us respond to our own mistakes. Don’t make excuses or shift the blame when you are in the wrong; show young people how apologies are done.
Remember the Grace
If a conversation with the troublemaker leads you to believe an apology is warranted--then encourage the apology. Stop short of requiring young persons to express regret, though. For one, if a child outright refuses to apologize, that response may be an indicator of other problems which need to be addressed, such as unresolved conflict. Forcing apologies amid unsettled situations is pointless and usually detrimental.
Moreover, apologizing should be associated with grace rather than with punishment. In stating this point, I do not suggest that teachers do away with consequences; students need accountability for their behavior. However, when we make apologies seem like penalties, we encourage students to run from remorse instead of experiencing the “gift of regret.” Here are a couple of sample “apology invitations”:
“Naki isn’t feeling so great right now. I think you owe her an apology.”
“Your actions made it tough for me to teach this afternoon. A ‘sorry’ would help me to move past this.”
“But It Was an Accident”
Students who hurt others by accident may mistakenly presume that they do not need to apologize. “I was running for the ball, and she got in my way. Why should I apologize?” “I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings with that comment; he just took it wrong. Why should I tell him I’m sorry?”
In situations like these, a little coaching is helpful:
“For now I’m going to trust that you meant no harm to Bethany. But when you didn’t go back to see if she was okay, you appeared uncaring. Please tell Bethany you are sorry for knocking her down and explain that you didn’t mean to hurt her. Then ask if she is feeling better.”
“You may not have meant to offend Cole with your comment, but he was still hurt as a result of your words. That means you owe him an apology.
When Students Mean to be Mean
What if it seems that the hurt was intentional, and there is no remorse after you’ve talked with the offender? As with any discipline situation, consider the student’s motivation before responding.
If the person’s behavior is the upshot of unresolved conflict, for instance, find ways to help the offender and victim work through their conflict. If you are the target, you may be tempted to react, but reacting only deepens the rift. Instead, provide upset students with appropriate ways to express their frustration, and build trust over time through working on positive relationships. You may still recommend an apology, but it’s better to wait until the offender and injured party are on the road to healing.
If outright cruelty--rather than conflict--is the motivator, the child may have an underlying mental health condition or trauma history, and may need professional assessment and treatment. Attempting to guide the student on your own is unwise: team up with your school counselor and with the parent or guardian, so that they can begin the process of seeking qualified help.
Finally, continue teaching appropriate outward behaviors to students who offend others, despite their inner motivations. Students who cause hurt or damage property, for instance, should make restitution. And offenders can still be encouraged to apologize, even if the apology is not fully sincere.
To Sum It Up
Unresolved hurt or conflict weakens classroom community and interferes with learning. When troublemakers are reluctant to apologize, work to minimize defensiveness--and so encourage culprits to accept responsibility. Model proper and sincere apologies through your own interactions, and coach students through the process of apologizing when necessary. Finally, remember to convey that saying “I’m sorry” is about seeking forgiveness, rather than about enduring a punishment.