“Say sorry!” I demanded.
“Sorry…” Dean mumbled.
“Look at Harry when you say it!” I added, getting louder.
“Sorry…” Dean whispered.
“Now say it like you mean it!” I insisted, exasperated.
“Sorry…” Dean repeated, reluctantly but ever so slightly more firmly.
I’ve been this adult in the past, both as a teacher and as a parent – and I suspect you may have been, too. Sorry is a word that we hear or request numerous times a day in our schools, so much so that it can sometimes be automatic.
For both children and adults, it can be a learned response to situations where harm – whether accidental or deliberate – has been caused to someone else or something has been damaged.
From the child’s point of view, the deployment of this magic word makes it clear they’ve apologised, they’re contrite and that is sufficient to make the situation better. How many times have you heard “I said sorry, didn’t I? What more do you want?”
Escalating the situation
We feed this learned response because as adults we have led children to understand that this is one of the main ways problems are resolved – another main one being punishment.
“Say sorry,” we demand, and – as far as the child can see – that is the end of the matter, once they’ve complied.
“Say it like you mean it!” sometimes follows if the teacher feels insufficient remorse has been demonstrated.
This has the potential to escalate a situation and we can be blinded by our quest to win – but win what?
For us to win, they have to lose and they probably don’t want to lose, especially in public. Behaviour change is not a zero-sum game. Statements such as “I’m really sorry for texting rude things about you to our friends” can be heartfelt and sincere, but they carry with them no commitment to behave differently in the future.
Promises such as “I won’t behave this way again” are commitments to behave differently – and children can be held to these promises if problems reoccur.
Questions such as “How can I fix our friendship?” are where the real power lies. Imagine the kinds of discussions you can support – and you need to support these kinds of discussions, especially with younger children and those with communication difficulties – when the children talk in this way?
As Mark Finnis, a restorative practices trainer, sums up:
“I’m sorry” is a statement.
“I won’t do it again” is a promise.
“How do I make it up to you?” is a responsibility.
Jarlath O’Brien is director for schools for a multi-academy trust of special schools. His latest book, Better Behaviour – a Guide for Teachers, will be published by SAGE in June 2018