The Art of the Apology

An interesting thing happened recently when I asked my students to write an apology note to the substitute for treating her disrespectfully—they had no clue what to do. As I distributed paper and demanded that they begin, I quickly realized that my students were not being intentionally uncooperative. They truly didn’t know how to approach a genuine apology letter. I was appalled, to put it lightly. This woman, who in my absence, had tried her best to help my 7th grade students with the work I had left, was ignored, defied, mocked, and ridiculed, yet the class had nothing to say? Was this due to a lack of social awareness? Had they never heard a formal apology before? Was their reticent response just a new level of entitlement? I was not prepared to teach them about the art of a formal apology—I’d wrongfully assumed that they knew how to tackle this task.

Cut to a quickly thrown together, yet comprehensive, mini-lesson on the key components of an apology.

  • Begin with the actual apology, “I’m sorry…” DO NOT follow up or continue your apology with the word “but.” This simple subordinating conjunction completely negates the actual apology. It implies that you are not fully remorseful, and even worse, writing “but” indicates that you believe you have an excuse for wronging the other person. Tell students to explain themselves at a later time if necessary; it shouldn’t be part of the apology.
  • Take responsibility and genuinely own your mistake. Admitting your error is half the battle when delivering an apology—until you acknowledge your misstep, any apology will be considered insincere.
  • Owning your mistake also means explicitly stating what you did to hurt the other person. This requires children and teens to be reflective and to truly consider how their actions had a negative impact on the other person. Stating your mistake shows the other person that you have acknowledged their feelings and put yourself in their shoes to identify how you may have hurt them.
  • Offer a solution to the mistake—this could mean promising to do better next time or perhaps to try your best not to repeat this mistake again. Sometimes the solution comes easily; however, it is also kind to ask the other person what you could do to mend the situation. If their response is reasonable, follow through on that request.
  • Ask for forgiveness. This can be difficult because it requires kids to leave themselves unguarded and open to rejection. They may worry that the other person will claim that they can’t forgive at the moment—this is okay. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’ll always get it, but putting the ball in the other person’s court after apologizing is pretty much all we can do.