Perfecting Apologies

A behavior specialist helps students put apologies into action

For Middle Level

As a behavioral specialist, I've found that getting students to say they're sorry for inappropriate or hurtful behavior is a fairly easy task. However, getting them to apologize and understand the reasons for the apology, while successfully dealing with initial attitudes of denial and/or working through feelings of remorse, can be very difficult. My experience has been that students either genuinely feel bad about what they have done and are eager to apologize, or they feel that they did not do anything wrong and therefore do not need to apologize. I found a way to expand what is possible when apologizing and instill greater empathy within my students in the student-generated process; it's called apology of action.

Strengthening community
Initially, my perspective on apology of action was that it was based on a simple belief that if you make a mess or hurt a relationship you should fix it. But the process runs deeper than that. Apology of action is a form of problem-solving that can be implemented when a simple "I'm sorry" won't suffice. Students can use actions rather than words to express sincere regret and the desire to put things right. This process has the capacity to strengthen personal and community-wide relationships.

Introducing action apologies
I introduced apology of action to students through modeling and practicing the procedure. The students and I developed a list of possible actions. At the end of the process, I followed up with teachers and students to see that the apology action was accepted and that the student followed through on what they told me they would do. In my visits to the classrooms, I was also interested in the quality of interaction between the students and teachers and between and among students.

Gauging the learning process
To help me gauge our progress, I collected surveys from students and staff and conducted student interviews. The surveys addressed students' knowledge of the process, action examples, their sense of its value, and whether or not it is being taken seriously by their peers. In the student surveys, most 5th-8th graders answered that they didn't take apology of action seriously. I learned later that this was largely because they felt uncomfortable publicly apologizing or having a peer offer an action apology. However, most of the students did know what it was and expressed that they felt it was important to apologize when they had done something wrong. One sentiment expressed by students in the surveys was remarkable: an action apology makes both people feel better.

The affective side
My interviews with students took a closer look at the affective side of the experience and included the following questions:

  • How did it make you feel?
  • Was doing an apology of action difficult?
  • Is an apology action different from saying "sorry?"

Most students answered that doing an apology action made them feel better in general, and when they apologized to a teacher, the air was cleared and anger dissolved. The students' responses were mixed as to whether they thought the apology of action process was difficult. What stood out in their responses was that it was much harder to do an apology of action in front of the class than it would be one-to-one. Finally, students interviewed reflected what was noted in the surveys--that apology actions were more meaningful than just saying "sorry."

Based on these responses, I was more convinced than ever that apology of action was a worthwhile endeavor for our school and that we still had a lot of work to do.

More modeling and practicing
The more I modeled apology of action with students, the more successful they were at completing one themselves. I also understood that students needed to practice the process a few times for their actions to be successful. Students would practice with me or my paraprofessional. We had the best results when we spent time beforehand asking them what their specific apology actions would look, sound, and feel like.

Working with teachers school-wide
My work as a behavior specialist involves ongoing collaboration with my teaching colleagues. Resolving behavior issues through apology of action necessarily brought the students back to their classrooms and involved the teacher in each process.

In our K-8 school, all teachers who responded to the staff survey indicated that they thought apology of action is important to our school community, although 50% of them noted that they had not yet implemented the practice in their rooms, and many of those who hadn't put the tool to use yet were unclear about its process and purpose. Even though my focus was on assisting students in developing appropriate apology actions, I realized that I also could assist my colleagues with their implementation of apology of action.

I worked with teachers differently, depending on the behavior challenges they were facing. The elementary teachers sought support because they had not been trained in the structure. For example, in one classroom, I taught the structure directly, then returned regularly to observe and work with students who were using action apologies.

Improvements school-wide
Over time, students and teachers school-wide learned how to accept and deliver apologies of action. One of the greatest shifts among the students was the ability to respond more comfortably to an offer of apology. At first, in student-to-student apologies, the receivers would too quickly say "That's OK," before the action could be defined or delivered. Students became more aware of the importance of an action to fix wrong doings in some cases and made time and space for them to happen.

The middle school students learned how to quickly state their apology and suggested action, minimizing the discomfort for both parties. They were able to create logical reparations for their offense. For example, after making a mess of a student's lunch, the apologizer offered to clear her lunch tray for a few days. An apology for wasting someone's time during art class was accompanied by an offer to clean up the person's area at the end of class for a while; the idea was to give back some of the time that was wasted-a logical, non-punitive measure.

From tension to understanding
Teachers increasingly saw the opportunity to build relationship when they were offered an apology. Especially following an apology from a student to a teacher, each would talk about how to improve the situation, moving from tension to understanding.

What remains most challenging is guiding students to greater comfort apologizing to a group. This is an important aspect of apology of action, because so often misbehavior disrupts the whole class. I will continue to hone the process in this regard. I want students to see the impact of their behavior on learning and to understand that discipline is about keeping teachers teaching and students learning.

Classroom Discipline
Background information on apology of action taken from
Classroom Discipline: Guiding Adolescents to Responsible Independence

Steps of Apology of Action

  1. Identify the problem
    The person who wants to sincerely apologize approaches the person he or she has hurt, admits the wrongdoing, and offers to make an apology of action.
  2. Brainstorm solutions
    The offender makes a suggestion or asks the hurt person what she would like, and/or they can refer to the list the class has already brainstormed for ideas.
  3. Select a solution
    In a successful apology of action process, the rule-breaker is empowered to decide what she will do to fix the problem, and the student hurt by the rule-breaker's behavior has a say in the matter, too.
  4. Take action
    The apologizing student completes the apology by taking the action agreed upon by both parties.
  5. Check in
    The two parties check with each other within a day or two that things are OK between them now. There may be some lingering cautiousness, but if the apology of action has worked, their relationship is recovering.

Don Calder is a behavioral specialist for K-8 students at Manchester Elementary Middle School in Manchester VT.

Published January 2010