The Playground Apology


Let’s paint a common picture. There’s a playground full of children ranging anywhere from 2-6 years of age running across various obstacles and equipment and playing all kinds of games. Then something happens. Maybe it’s physical aggression, or a verbal exchange, but now there is an offended and upset individual. This calls for an apology.

In many cases these are initially mediated by adults, be it parents, teaching staff, or therapy staff. The ability to determine an apology as appropriate is a skill that some children do not necessarily have yet in their repertoires. The adult usually comes over to smooth out the situation by pausing the actions of both children, and prompting the offending child to apologize, or repeat an apology to the other upset child. This is anecdotally seen as a teaching moment to model appropriate skills and teach compassionate and soothing interactions, but also vocalize some responsibility and culpability in some cases. From a behavioral analytic standpoint, we would want to dig a little deeper and look at this as a very specific type of verbal exchange, some kind of operant, that occurs under distinct conditions, for a specialized function. That’s exactly what Toney and Hayes (2017) looked at in their work, which we’ll apply to a situation below.

I was observing a client at a summer camp, and it followed the same recreational activities that most do, like free play outside. The interesting thing here was that this was the start of the camp. A new environment to many of these children, and new peers that they have never met before. Many ranged around two years old to around six years old, and there was diversity in social and play skills. One individual had a game where they would run around, collide with a peer, and then keep going. The camp counselor would come over, have them echo an apology, and then move on. Ten minutes later, this would happen again twice. Similar conditions, same echoic prompted consequence. This was not my client, so interaction and the application of data collection or a functional behavior analysis was out of the question, but based on cursory observation these echoed apologies were only marginally effective at soothing the injured party. It begged the question: Was “sorry” enough?

What do we take from with this model of intervention? Was echoing the camp counselors apology working? If the intention was to have the child decrease their colliding behavior, we did not see any immediate useful effect. If the intention was to teach independent apologies, that was also not very effective from what we saw of these two prompted conditions which followed.  It seemed to me to be a momentary pause to the running and colliding activity that had no obvious or immediate punishing, or reinforcing evidence. This is where I remembered Torey and Hayes’ research in the Journal of Behavior and Social Issues (2017) and their interpretation as apologies which are not only under the control of the behavior which preceded them, but also the response of the person who was impacted. In this situation, the children who were impacted (literally), were in various states of being upset, but the child who was apologizing did not seem to have their responses under any control of those stimuli directly. It was not a child to child interaction, there was mediation there that might have actually impeded with those connections. Torey and Hayes explain:

“Perhaps one of the most important understandings provided by a behavioral analysis that contrasts with traditional views is that of the source of control for apologetic responses. It is said that people apologize for what they did and it is believed that one apologizes as a result of his or her aversive behavior. However, at the point of apologizing, the aversive behavior is in the past and therefore cannot exclusively exert control over present behavior (see related discussion in Hayes, 1992, 1998). Instead, it is the victim’s offended response that exerts control over the apologetic response. Given the history of the aversive behavior, the offended response and other stimuli present at the time of conflict now exert control over particular forms of the offender’s verbal behavior that are related to past events. Therefore, the relation that exists between the apology and the aversive behavior is that the apology is the response to the victim’s consequence to the aversive behavior.”- Torey and Hayes (2017)

There are many other factors that Hayes and Torey raise that impact the “victim’s response” including; situational variables, physical pain, nonverbal and paralinguistic features, relationship specific contingencies, behavioral deficits, and frequency. These are all important factors to keep in mind so that we do not oversimplify, but when we frame a situation to be a teaching moment for a child, in hopes that they take on an important skill that will inevitably be useful later in life, why do we focus so much on the words themselves that the “offender” is saying and not the responses and condition of the person effected? Is “sorry” actually enough? Probably not from this behavioral analytic interpretation. Here, the person who was impacted has a role to play. Not just as a background figure who has to be defended by the adult, but as a direct contributor to the contingency.

Perhaps a more comprehensive intervention to teach these skills would have three parts, if we are dealing with school age children or younger who can not resolve these situations themselves:

  1. The Mediator’s Role: A parent, guardian, teacher, staff, therapist, or other responsible individual who is structuring the interaction between the child who was impacted, and the child who engaged in the offending action. Their goal is to facilitate appropriate responses between the two individuals in a way where both can express and learn effectively based on the situational factors above, and the incident.
  2. The Victim’s Role: Facilitated by the mediator to the degree that is necessary for the situation, so that they can express their own response to the action in a meaningful way to the offender. Behaviorally speaking, these should be clear and observable to the offender.
  3. The Offender’s Role: Facilitated by the mediator as well to the degree which is necessary, but one that also includes time for processing the situation, taking in the response(s) of the victim, and then following up with a socially appropriate apology.


Maybe even let those more natural contingencies play out. Let some screaming happen. Let some tears flow. It would not have to be a laboratory setting to get the results that have the lasting effects.

We might infer correctly that “saying sorry” by parroting an adult may not have the same value as an exchange like the one above. It could just be a prompted echoic response that hangs in the air. An S-delta with no effect on future behavior. The other, which weighs heavily on the interaction itself, leads to an actual follow up interaction between the children that may have a greater, or more lasting impact. Now, the offender might not entirely mean it, and the victim may not entirely accept it. Most complex social situations are not cut and dry, but I would argue that we have a better shot at more effective resolution short term, and stronger heuristic outcomes long term than a contrived echoic intervention alone.

What do you think? Thoughts? Comments? Leave them below!

And seriously. Read Torey and Hayes article. It’s fascinating.



Toney, D., & Hayes, L. (2017). A Behavioral Analysis of Apologies, Forgiveness, and Interpersonal Conflict. Behavior and Social Issues, 26, 128.

Image Credits:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s