Teaching Children the Meaning of “I’m Sorry”

 In Ask the Expert, Family Time Tips & Tools

Saying “Sorry” Should be About Observation and Action

The Scenario:

As I walk into the preschool classroom, I see two children actively engaged at the water table.  All of a sudden, Hannah starts screaming and crying, “She splashed me!”  Erica immediately chimes in, “I’m sorry.  I said that I’m sorry,” and continues dumping and filling in the water table.  The teacher rushes over and asks Erica if she said her sorry as she guides Hannah to the paper towels so she can dry her face.

Every day, scenes like this unfold in preschools around Indiana, but saying sorry rarely makes the situation better.  Plus young kids are rarely truly sorry.  Instead, “I’m sorry” is being used like a magic wand—say it and I’m off the hook! Knock over a block tower? Steal his swing? Write on her paper? Just say “sorry” and I’m free to continue on my way.

Instead of “Sorry”

In her book, It’s OK Not to Share, Heather Shumaker suggests instead of forcing “sorry,” we should teach children to stick around, take responsibility and understand that their words and actions can impact other children. Which is more meaningful?  Erica could say “I’m sorry,” or Erica could get a paper towel, help Hannah dry her face and say “I will try my best not to splash you again.”

Preschoolers are still learning about cause and effect. They do not have the cognitive ability to feel empathy or understand the true meaning behind “I’m sorry.” Sure, we want a classroom of children who are caring. However, forcing children to say “sorry” before they understand its meaning only gets in the way of teaching empathy. When adults demonstrate empathy, it helps children develop compassion. When parents and teachers give children the words or scripts necessary to observe and take action, they are developing compassion in a way that is real and meaningful for them.

The Scenario with Observation and Action

Let’s imagine our situation differently this time. As I walk into the preschool classroom, I see two children actively engaged at the water table. All of a sudden, Hannah starts screaming and crying, “She splashed me!” The teacher rushes over and says to Erica, “You splashed Hannah with your scooper. She is crying because she didn’t want to be wet. How can you make it better for Hannah?” Erica thinks for a second. “I can get her a paper towel.” Erica gets a paper towel, hands it to Hannah, and she dries her face.  The teacher then says, “Tell Hannah you won’t splash her again.” Hannah says this to Erica and the teacher repeats, “Erica says she won’t splash you again.” Hannah feels safe now; her feelings and emotions have been addressed. Erica took responsibility and came up with a way to make it better.

Compassion unfolds naturally.  Eventually preschoolers will say “sorry” and really mean it.  Until then, lead them towards deeper skills by encouraging them to observe and take action.


Written by Shannon Ford, MA, ECE   Professional Development Specialist

Shumaker, H. (2012).  It’s OK Not to Share.  New York, NY:  Penguin Group.

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