Here we go again… Joey took Jill’s doll for the third time in the past hour. The typical adult response is, “Joey give Jill the doll back and tell her you’re sorry.” Does this sound familiar? In child care programs, this is a normal part of the daily routine. Providers get to referee children multiple times a day with canned phrases and actions to handle the situation.

As adults, we have been programmed to say, “I am sorry.”

Those three simple words apparently make everything better. However, do they? Do children really process what their actions were and regret making the choices that they made, thus they are truly sorry and less likely to repeat? Doubtful! More often, they too have a canned response of, “Sorry Jill.” Joey really means, see you and your doll in about 10 minutes when I will yet again torment you.

Teaching Empathy

So how can Joey learn that Jill is really upset by his actions and it would be best for him to stop? Teaching children empathy and how to offer a sincere apology can be very tricky and is a lifelong process. As a provider, you can help the process by NOT prompting children to fake an apology. A different, effective way to help a child build their emotional vocabulary is to guide them through the process of being sorry. You could tell Joey, “It really hurts Jill’s feelings and interrupts her play when you take her doll. What could you do differently next time, Joey?” Allowing Joey to problem solve and consider better options on what he could do differently gives him a guided opportunity for open thought. You can discuss and offer gentle feedback during this time. He may not be ready to say he is sorry at this point, however, hopefully he is thinking more on the situation. You could then ask Joey to state what he did and how he will do things differently moving forward. For example, I was wrong when I ___(took Jill’s doll)___. Jill was sad. Next time I will ___(ask Jill to play)___. This statement can be modeled by you as the provider and incorporated throughout the day to reinforce this style of communication. I was wrong when I______. Next time I will_____.

The goal is to get children to state their undesirable action and what the effect was. When children make these statements, you can let them know they do NOT have to apologize, however if they do feel like they are sorry, it is nice to tell the person they affected by acting in an undesirable way. In addition, apologies do not have a time frame. Joey may not be sorry today, but maybe after he thinks on it and tells his dad how his day was, he will realize he does feel bad. Joey may never say he is sorry; however, the real goal is to get Joey to understand why his actions were wrong and how he can change them. Forcing apologies does not teach children or fix problems. Using this alternative method can help children to acknowledge their behaviors, problem solve to fix them and be less likely to repeat them.

Teaching this method to children should help them develop a stronger sense of empathy, cause and effect, and reinforce positive choices. For more information on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (EC-PBIS), please contact your Child Care Consultant here.

Teaching children positive skills now, grows strong competent adults later.


Tags: pbis , positive behavioral interventions & supports , apology , empathy

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