“I was wrong.” Hearing these words brings a sense of empathy as the soul is laid bare. These three simple words change the direction of a student’s social interactions in a powerful way.

I’m not ready to admit I am old, but after 28 years in the classroom and 5 years in administration, I’ve been what you might say “around the block” with helping students to resolve conflict. Many parents will label regular conflict as bullying. There are true cases of bullying with innocent victims, of course. However, most student issues are just caused by conflict between students who want their own desires and do not get their way (James 4:1-2). These conflict issues often consume more of our day than we wish to admit. After recess or during lunch these altercations seep into the classroom as student focus is shifted to emotional regulation of conflict. We are ready to teach, but some students cannot get past the wall of friction to hear the stellar lesson we have planned. And that’s a problem.

Usually when conflict arises teachers try to help students apologize by saying, “I’m sorry.” This sounds good and worthy of doing; however, in my experience, the words, “I’m sorry” often come out in the wrong tone, attached with blame-shifting or defending. The other person is not quite sure of the authenticity or genuine heart behind the words. Have you heard this too?

So, I’ve changed my tactics. When students are in a conflict, the first step is to get to the child’s heart and help him or her realize their personal part of the problem. After all, until we realize our sin, we do not need Christ to save us. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). I ask the child, “Before you tell me the other person’s part of the problem, what is your part of the problem?” This is usually difficult for the child as it seems like a shock to their system to even imagine they are a part of the problem. If the child starts to blame the other person again, I remind them that I want to hear his/her part of the problem first. Once I hear his/her part of the problem we have made a huge leap toward resolution.

Next, I say to the child that I want to try an experiment. They are always curious. I say, “Since you admitted you were part of the problem, I want you to say, “I was wrong.” (I ask them to practice saying that.) Then I ask the student, “What do you think will happen if you say that to the other person?” They usually shrug their shoulders and say, “Nothing.” I ask the student to try it and we can see what happens, like an experiment. What transpires next is powerful. When a student looks at the other person and states, “I was wrong,” in their mind the unthinkable happens. The other person without prompting responds, “No, I was wrong!” (Or they stand there in complete surprise and feel sorrow for even getting into conflict in the first place.) I’ve actually seen students then going on and on, taking responsibility for their own wrongdoing in detail without any prompting. Then come the words, “Will you forgive me?” Hugs, high fives, and restoration follow in a genuine way.

Why does this work so well? The words “I was wrong” show a humble and contrite spirit in which a person is ready to make amends. No pride or selfishness exist in those words. Without the focus on our own desires, the situation moves to restoration.

Lastly, this catapults students into thinking about solutions to make things “right,” as we all mess up from time to time. Resolution and restoration come in response to forgiveness.

Remember these steps when helping students in conflict:

  1. Tell your part in the problem first.
  2. Say “I was wrong.” (Practice.)
  3. Go to the other person and say those 3 words.
  4. Listen to the other person’s response. Embrace forgiveness.
  5. Ask students how they can fix their part of the problem for next time. (Give ideas if needed.)
  6. Celebrate restoration.

Do not forget to try this in your own personal life as well as modeling it with your students. After all, we teach by modeling, and involving students daily must begin with us. So, let’s make things right as we practice saying, “I was wrong.” David stated in Psalm 51:17, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” If the Lord accepts that, how can we not accept that also?

Julia Taves served for 36 years in Christian schools in the US, Africa, and the Dominican Republic. She has taught various levels in elementary, worked as an Elementary Principal in Uganda, and currently is serving as an Elementary Principal at Santiago Christian School in the Dominican Republic. She also worked as a Supervisor at Colorado Christian University in the Student Teaching Program. Julia is a published author including curriculum writing for ACSI, numerous published works through Cook Communications including The Quiet Hour, and a children’s devotional entitled “Hi, God. It’s Me Again.” (Westbow Press) Julia has an M.A. degree in Educational Leadership, and a passion to help school communities live every day in light of eternity, bless others and do hard things.