Students explore what forgiveness is and what it is not.

Introduction to Forgiveness

Students develop a working definition for what forgiveness is and what it is not, and consider its relationship to justice, revenge, the role of apology, and reconciliation.

Level: Upper Elementary
Duration: ≤ 1 hour
My Notes: Add/Edit Notes

Planning For It

When You Might Use This Practice

  • To help students gain a better understanding of forgiveness
  • Any time of the school year


Time Required

  • ≤ 1 hour



  • Paper
  • Pencil/pen
  • Large post-it paper (Optional)


Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • Identify and recognize what forgiveness is and is not as an option to doing something different with their anger when they are hurt or in conflict with another person
  • Describe the relationship between forgiveness and justice
  • Describe the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation
  • Recognize that an apology makes forgiving easier but it is not necessary for one to be able to forgive


Additional Supports


Character Strengths

  • Forgiveness
  • Courage
  • Justice


SEL Competencies

  •  Self-Awareness


Mindfulness Components

  • Non-Judgment

How To Do It

Reflection Before the Practice

Take a moment to reflect on your own definition and understanding of forgiveness, including what you have learned about forgiveness in the past, where you may have heard the word, and how you approach forgiveness. How does forgiveness relate to justice? Does forgiveness mean you have to reconcile with the offender?


Before you begin

  • This practice can be used on its own, but is meant to be the second in a series of practices that teach students about forgiveness. An electronic version of the entire curriculum is available through the International Forgiveness Institute website. GGIE readers are able to purchase the electronic version at a discounted price of just $15 (to order, click the “GGIE Version – Electronic” box). A printed version is available for $40.
  • Before teaching this lesson, we encourage you to read this short description about helping students understand what forgiveness is and what it is not.



  • Begin by having students write their own definition and understanding of forgiveness, including what they have learned about forgiveness in the past, and where they may have heard the word.
  • There is no wrong or right answer to this exercise. It is just a good way for students to start thinking about their own understanding of forgiveness.
  • Have students share in pairs or small groups and then a few students can share with the large group.
  • Using the educator notes, lead the whole class in a discussion on the definition of forgiveness, including what forgiveness looks and feels like as well as what students think forgiveness is and isn’t.
  • You can have students develop their own “working” definition of forgiveness by asking questions that help students consider:
    • the role of apology when forgiving
    • whether one has to remain or continue a relationship with an offender
    • what happens to anger when one forgives
    • how justice and forgiveness and revenge and forgiveness are related
  • Each one of the above relationships about forgiveness and a related concept can be given to small groups of students to discuss and then each group can be asked to write a brief example about the relationship or act out the connection dramatically.
    • The other groups of students can try to guess what message about forgiveness is illustrated in the example or being acted out.
  • Students can also write out their own stories of forgiveness, highlighting the new information they learned about what forgiveness is and is not.
  • After students have had time to discuss their own ideas of forgiveness with the educator’s help, they can be asked to come up with a definition collectively, that the whole class agrees on.
    • Emphasis should be placed on the fact that it is the child’s choice to forgive or not, as well as the idea that forgiveness does not mean one has to maintain a friendship with the offender. Children who have received this forgiveness education previously appreciated hearing that they did not have to maintain relationships with those who were hurting them but could still do the work on forgiving. They also really appreciated learning that forgiveness was a way to let go of anger that they may have been holding onto for a while.
    • Have students discuss their thoughts about apologies when forgiving and why apologies are helpful when forgiving but not necessary. Students can discuss whether apologies are always offered as well as whether they have to forgive if they receive an apology.
    • Ensure that students understand that forgiveness is personal, thus, something the individual can do on their own, while justice is public, carried out by the public and authorities. Forgiveness does not mean that students continue to get hurt or are left in an unsafe situation. Students need to know what to do when being hurt by another student before they can begin to consider forgiveness. An example can be given of how showing kindness and forgiveness to a bully can also include telling a teacher or another adult about being bullied.
  • Students can be given a handout that includes their definition of forgiveness, as well as what forgiveness is not.
    • This handout can be pasted in students’ notebooks or folders along with any examples they wrote about forgiveness or stories that were acted out.
    • The handout can also be developed into an Anchor chart that can be displayed in the classroom.
  • Students can discuss times they have told an adult when they have been unfairly hurt by someone and what that experience was like and times other students have told on them for their hurtful actions. Did the offender experience justice (consequences/punishment) for their actions?
  • Students can discuss the difference between thinking revengeful thoughts and actually carrying out revenge. Students can share in small groups if they have had revenge fantasies and how that can be a natural part of working through anger before deciding to forgive.
  • Students can also discuss times they have carried out revenge or times other individuals have acted out revenge on them. Students can compare such instances with instances in which they have chosen to forgive the offender or they themselves have received forgiveness from another.
  • Furthermore, students can discuss how they might show kindness to an offender, what makes it hard to show kindness to an offender, and what sort of outcomes might result from showing kindness to an offender.
 Special Note for the Educator:
  • You may need to give examples of what it looks like to receive consequences for one’s hurtful behavior in contrast to revenge.
  • You can discuss the importance of telling an adult when one is being hurt and highlight the difference between revenge and justice.
    • With revenge, the offended individual personally wants to do something hurtful to get back at the offender.
    • However, with justice, usually someone other than the offended, such as one’s parents, teachers, authorities, and/or public, is in charge of showing the offender that their actions have consequences.
    • Revenge often feels good in the moment, but not in the long run. Revenge behavior can lead to long-lasting feuds and conflicts.
    • To be able to think about forgiving, students need to hear that those who hurt them will NOT be let off the hook for their actions and that justice will occur whenever possible.
    • Thus, students need to know that justice and forgiveness can both occur although, when we forgive, we give up personal justice—which is revenge.
    • Students also need to hear that forgiveness is hard work and takes effort and courage. The deeper the hurt, the longer it may take to forgive, and in certain situations, one may choose not to forgive. It is always up to the individual whether they choose to forgive or not.  And the decision can be made even if one does not feel the forgiveness in their heart at the time they make the decision. Those feelings will develop during the process.


  • Ask students to write a short reflection. You may use the following reflection questions:
    • What will I take away from this lesson?
    • What were some ideas that we discussed that really challenge me? Why do these ideas challenge me?



The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness
A Social Emotional Learning/Character Education Teaching Guide for Children Ages 9-12, International Forgiveness Institute
Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., University of Northern Iowa
Robert D. Enright, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education

Reflection After the Practice

  • Did students’ understanding of forgiveness change?
  • What insights with regard to forgiveness did students appreciate the most? What insights did they find most challenging?
  • How might you support students who are working towards forgiving someone?

The Research Behind It

Evidence That It Works

A study found that a forgiveness intervention increased adolescent students’ hope and willingness to forgive, and decreased their anxiety and depression. The intervention consisted of approximately 23 hours of education, which were broken down into five main sections. The second of these sections focused on understanding forgiveness as an option that one can make when ready to release anger. It also focused on understanding the relationship between forgiveness and revenge, and forgiveness and justice.

In a second study, 4th grade students showed an increase in forgiveness and hope, and a decrease in anger after participating in a forgiveness education program.

Why Does It Matter?

The increase in school shootings, bullying, violence, and discrimination experienced by children and adolescents underlines the need for education that helps students cope with trauma and deep hurt, both of which can result in anger, anxiety, and depression.

Education on forgiveness is particularly important given that angry and hurt children who cannot understand their feelings often inflict anger upon others, or deny it until it erupts. Teaching children what forgiveness is and is not as well as how to forgive—including that forgiveness is a choice, does not mean condoning the behavior, and does not require them to remain friends with the person— can help create more positive and safe learning environments. Furthermore, research finds that when forgiveness occurs among friends, forgiveness is related to greater well-being for children.

“We may not know how to forgive, and we may not want to forgive; but the very fact we say we are willing to forgive begins the healing practice.”
–Louise Hay
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