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The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness

Dr. Suzanne Freedman
Non-Region Specific
Our systems of education must produce individuals with strong social, emotional, and character capital...There is no better time to nurture these attributes and lay the foundation for a culture of forgiving than the earliest years of childhood development.
Dr. Kofi Marfo
professor and foundation director (retired), Institute for Human Development, Aga Khan University

Forgiveness in the Classroom

This 17-lesson curriculum, geared toward upper-level primary school students, helps students understand forgiveness, regulate their emotions in healthier ways, and choose kindness and empathy over anger.

Forgiveness for Kids

What is forgiveness? In this video, The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement—a supporting resource for Dr. Freedman’s curriculum—gives kids a two-minute overview into what forgiveness is and how to change an angry thought into a loving one.

About the Tool

Happier classrooms for a healthier world can begin with forgiveness.

At a time when students of all ages face rising mental health challenges, schools and educators need more resources, support, and training to foster mental wellness for students and learning communities. Against this backdrop, a network of global forgiveness experts seek to promote forgiveness as a tool for teachers to help foster students’ personal growth.

Developed by Dr. Suzanne Freedman, this curriculum is designed for use with upper-level primary school students and contains 17 lessons that can be used by teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, and after-school program leaders. It leverages 14 works of children’s literature to teach the concept of forgiveness and related ideas, such as kindness, healthy expression of anger, empathy, and compassion. Forgiveness education and this curriculum—which can be taught as stand-alone lessons or in its entirety—focuses on recognizing and validating students’ anger, as well as teaching students to express and regulate emotions in a healthy way, understand the perspective and humanity of offenders, and practice empathy and compassion toward them. 

Knowing how to forgive gives students the opportunity to choose love and kindness over anger and hatred.

Past students who have received a version of this specific curriculum measured increases in forgiveness, knowledge of what forgiveness is and is not, and willingness to forgive as a result of the education. Learning about forgiveness gives students the knowledge and power needed to ask for forgiveness or grant it. Practicing the virtue of forgiveness rewards the forgiver, the forgiven, and society at large.

Forgiveness in Action

Forgiveness in Action

Forgiveness in Action

Faith leaders, mental health professionals, and educators provide direct support, education, and counsel to people in their communities on why and how to forgive. Learn more about how this tool can be accessed and deployed by the practitioners bringing forgiveness to the world.

Flip through the panels on the right to learn more.

For Mental Health Professionals

For Mental Health Professionals

Mental Health Professionals

The Courage to Forgive can be helpful to and used by mental health professionals in their work with children or early adolescents who have anger related to an injustice they experienced or conflict they are experiencing. In counseling environments, mental health professionals can use the content in the 17 lessons to help young people cope with anger issues, work on emotional regulation, and develop empathy. At least one children’s book in each lesson can be used for bibliotherapy with clients. 

For Educators

For Educators


More mental health resources are needed to support young people, and the Courage to Forgive is a valuable and free resource to supplement social emotional learning and character education in schools and other learning environments. This curriculum was written specifically for educators, school counselors, and homeschooling parents, with fourth and fifth grade students in mind, and it may also be useful in after-school programs. The goal of this curriculum is for students to learn about forgiveness, including what it is and is not, how to forgive, contexts appropriate for forgiveness, and the benefits of forgiveness. 

For Faith Leaders

For Faith Leaders

Faith Leaders

Faith leaders can use this curriculum and specific lessons therein to lead small group forgiveness education and interventions for children, adolescents, and adults. As all religions see forgiveness as a virtue, this curriculum will help faith leaders understand forgiveness from a psychological perspective, supplementing more faith-based understandings. 

Phase 1: Dealing with Feelings

Phase 1 of the curriculum focuses on anger. Students will recognize that anger is normal and natural; it is what one does with this emotion that can be judged as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Holding onto anger has consequences, and students must identify both different ways of expressing anger and the benefits of letting anger go after expressing it.

Books used: "When Sophie Gets Angry - Really, Really Angry..." By Molly Bang

"Sometimes I am Bombaloo" By Rachel Vail

Phase 2: Deciding to Forgive

Kindness is central to social-emotional learning, and to forgiveness education. Students must identify the connection between forgiveness and showing kindness to those who have not been kind to them. In phase two, students will learn to recognize what forgiveness is and what it is not so they can funnel anger into more productive strategies when they are hurt or in conflict with another person. At this point, students’ knowledge of forgiveness is assessed.

Books Used: "The Forgiveness Garden" By Lauren Thompson

"I am Extremely Absolutely Boiling" by Lauren Child

Phase 3: The Work of Forgiveness

An individual can do a bad thing and still be a good person, and in this third phase of the curriculum, students will recognize the importance of not judging people based on past actions. Students will also learn how to take responsibility and make amends for times that they have hurt others.

Books Used: "Desmond and the Very Mean Word" By Desmond Tutu and A. G. Ford

Phase 4: Feeling Peace

What does forgiveness look like? The benefits of forgiveness begin to take shape as students recognize characteristics and actions of forgiving people in this fourth and final phase of the curriculum. Students will reflect on what they’ve learned and will create their own stories or books about forgiveness, while educators assess what students learned and collect qualitative data.

Download the curriculum

About the Author

Dr. Suzanne Freedman is a Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Foundations at the University of Northern Iowa, where she teaches a course on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and co-chairs the COE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.

Dr. Freedman earned both her master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was the recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Dissertation Award in 1993 for her groundbreaking research on forgiveness and incest survivors, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. She has been studying the topic of forgiveness for more than 30 years and her publications focus on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education with children, adolescents, and adults.