Saying Sorry the Conscious Discipline Way

saying sorryMaking mistakes, doing the wrong thing, and having a child apologize for it has been normalized in childcare settings for far too long. Apologies can be overused and that makes the apology less meaningful. Does a 2-5-year-old really know what it means to be sorry? Anyone can say “I’m sorry” but do they really mean it? Apologies should be about repairing a broken connection between two or more people. It’s not about just saying some words and moving on. So how do we help our children learn how to say “I’m sorry!” and really mean it?

All of that changes when you take a step back and apply Conscious Discipline to how you see, say, and do things in and outside of the classroom. Here are a few steps to help say “sorry”, using conscious discipline:

Understanding What Happened – Take a Deep Breath

Before the age of 5, did you know what it meant when someone said “I’m sorry” to you? Did they know what it meant?  A true meaningful apology is about understanding what actions may have caused someone to feel. This is also known as showing empathy. Practicing how to show and give empathy to someone is the first step to helping children understand what an apology is for. One of the best ways to teach empathy to young children is to ask them questions about other people’s feelings, like “I saw that your friend was crying when she fell. I wonder what she was feeling?” or “How would you feel if a friend was playing unfairly with you?”. Asking simple questions like these can help children understand that something was done wrong, someone else’s feelings are hurt and how can we fix them.

Taking Responsibility – Everyone Has Feelings

We all make mistakes, it’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, in childcare mistakes are made daily and it’s completely developmentally appropriate. Everyone is learning, and some children learn at different paces. Once a child understands what happened, that allows them to show empathy and take responsibility for their actions. They may not even have known what they were doing, and how it made someone else feel. When we ask children to think about how their actions made another person feel, we are consciously thinking about how we can help aid the problem and make them feel better. Children begin to take responsibility for their actions and how they make someone else feel. It is important for children (and adults) to understand that if we do something wrong or hurtful it is a problem that we need to take responsibility for and help fix it, even if it’s an accident or we didn’t mean to. This is the next step to help children understand why apologies are so important.

What Happens Next? Let’s Feel Better

Now that we understand what happened, and we have taken responsibility for our words or actions, what happens next? When we know that someone feels hurt because of something we have done or said to them, we try to help make it/them feel better if we can. Children can really take the time to acknowledge someone else’s feelings by understanding what happened (showing empathy), taking responsibility (recognizing feelings) for it, and simply asking how they can help make the situation better (providing a solution). Adults can help guide this process by saying let’s ask them how they feel or how we can help them feel better. Most of the time you will hear responses like “I need a high five, hug, space, etc.” and that’s okay, in fact, it’s normal! If we can at least teach children to understand what happened, take responsibility for it, and try to help make the situation better, that is not only a win to understanding apologies but a win to repairing a broken connection.

Lending a Helping Hand

Saying “I’m sorry” and actually meaning it is a difficult skill for children (and adults) to learn. Helping children learn and understand that even when you accidentally hurt someone, it is important to take responsibility by remembering that being hurt doesn’t feel good, and we never want anyone to feel bad. Instead, we want to be kind and lend a helping hand. By showing and practicing how to be conscious of your actions and how to guide children to take responsibility, you are investing in their social-emotional development, and that will set them up for success when they say “I’m sorry” and mean it. And that’s something you should never be sorry for.