Teaching Social Norms, Part 4
There exists a word whose usage might be among the most strongly advocated in early childhood and elementary school classrooms. You will often hear teachers demanding that children say it, sometimes several times a day. And its power extends beyond my world of primary-colored walls, snack times, and epic LEGO ship battles; not a day goes by where some public figure isn’t demanded to say it by inflamed adults.
That word? Sorry.
The problem is… I’m not really a fan. Allow me to explain…
In this series, I’ve explored the teaching of social norms in a number of ways. I’ve discussed how I handled a disagreement in the types of norms to promote between teacher and parent; I’ve explored my own discomfort and lack of certainty on what norm to teach and how; and I have theorized on the way that norms taught to young children can both reflect and promote broader values. Here, I’d like to discuss a space in which my issue with the prevailing norm is not that it is wrong or overly arbitrary, but where I think it does not go nearly far enough to teach children what we hope it does when we steadfastly promote it.
When I hear a teacher or other adult attempt to rectify a spat between two children with an age old, “Say you’re sorry, ” I want to give them a big ol’, “Srsly?” What, exactly, does that accomplish? How does it address the needs of the aggrieved student? What does it teach the transgressor? How does it actually solve the problem?
These aren’t rhetorical questions, mind you. My answers are thus: Not much other than placate a sense that something must be done; it rarely does; how to avoid taking real responsibility for his/her actions; again, it rarely does. And the fact that the second and fourth answers here are identical is no mistake. In fact, they are what underpin my approach and the values I seek to instill via that approach.
In my classroom, I utilize what is known as an “apology of action” . In a nutshell, this means that indeed something must be done when conflict arises, but that the something being done actually requires that someone do something. And, more importantly, the something that requires doing is determined largely by the aggrieved party. This is achieved through the use of one very simple phrase, practiced ad nauseum to the point of being done almost reflexively when trouble arises:
“How can I help you feel better?” 
Through a variety of methods, I teach the children that when someone is upset (even if they are not necessarily the person who made the person upset), we have a responsibility to make reasonable efforts to address his/her hurt. But in order to do this, we must first understand that hurt. A skinned knee is different than a hurt feeling and should be treated as such. So, if Johnny knocks down Maria, whether purposeful or intentional, it is expected that his first step is to stop what he is doing and check in on her. He asks the question, “How can I help you feel better?” He then is expected to follow up on her request and make sure she is reasonably whole again before returning to whatever it is he was doing. The same is true if the injury in non-physical, though the means required to address the need will be different.
The system isn’t perfect. The children need guidance and support in making reasonable demands when they are the hurt party. “I need you to help me fix the block structure you knocked down,” or “Please get me a band-aid,”  are all reasonable demands; “Give me all of your toys,” or “Make your own knee bleed,” are not. They also require assistance in determining if they rightly have a claim on another. One current student, often the transgressor, will balk at being called out on her actions. She’ll complete the routine, but then insist that the other party does the same for her, because she didn’t like that they called her on her error. I will intervene here, explaining that her own hurt is the result of her action, for which she is still accountable. She may make requests of others, but not demands. And, ultimately, if she didn’t like having to go through the process, she is the one most in control of that, a requirement which can be largely mitigated by better initial behavior. Then there is the always-difficult time where someone becomes upset through the fault of no one: a precariously made block structure topples on its own or a child trips over her own two feet. There is not an obviously responsible party who must make her whole again. But, as a community, I still teach the children that they are expected to care for one another, even if they are not directly responsible. The tone and the weight of the expectations are different, but they are present nonetheless. Positive reinforcement abounds and, perhaps most importantly, children have an unexpected opportunity to change another’s feelings for the better, satiating an internal quest for power that defines the developmental stage.
The reasons I advocate this approach are multiple. It teaches accountability. It teaches empathy. It teaches empowerment. It teaches self-advocacy skills. It teachers perspective-taking. It teaches children to atone for their mistakes. If you want to call it a discipline method, it is a non-punitive one. Basically, it’s doper than Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z throwing a joint New Year’s Eve party.
I sometimes wonder how much better our world would be if we employed this universally . How much better our communities and society would be if we all just took a moment to say, “How can I help you feel better?” And (as the book I read to the children reminds them) actually do it.
 This is not an original curriculum. It is largely derived from the Northeast Foundation for Children’s “Responsive Classroom” approach and my time spent mentoring under a seasoned professional employing it.
 Sometimes bastardized to “How can I feel better you?” I am tickled at the notion of “feel better” being a verb.
 Perhaps in violation of who-knows-how-many health codes/OSHA regulations/liability standards (TOD!!!), I keep a large bin of band-aids and “ice” packs (they’re all room temperature) in my room, which the children employ at their discretion when they deem necessary. Provided no one abuses the privilege, it cuts down on unnecessary trips to the evil school nurse, minimizes attention seeking behavior for non-injuries, and empowers children over their own bodies.
 Zazzy hates when I do it. “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST SAY SORRY?!?!” The prevailing norm is strong with this one.