Faith Baldwin is the daughter of one of my favorite mentors in child development. Here's a blog she wrote from observations and insights at her dayhome/preschool...
Joyful Toddlers - blogspot Faith Baldwin
I don't have children use the word “Sorry” at Rainbow Bridge. The reason for this is that what we want from the word sorry is very complex: something along the lines of “I feel bad about what I did, I hope you're not hurt too badly, and I'll try my best not to do it again.” All of that in one word? The kids who come to my house using the word Sorry rarely seem to be saying any of that when they use the word; it's simply what you're supposed to say when you hurt someone. It usually comes out quickly and with little emotion behind it.
Young children live primarily in the will, so instead of words, I have them go straight to action when they hurt someone. After comforting the child who's hurt, I help the aggressor think of what they can do to help the other child feel better. If they push a child who falls down and bumps their head, they can run and get an ice-pack for the other child (or we'll all go to get it together, but I'll hand it to them to give to the hurt child). If a child is hurt less badly, I'll suggest that they help rub the other child's back. Sometimes, especially if they hit or bit the other child, the hurt child doesn't want the perpetrator to touch them yet. In that case I'll suggest that they find a toy that the hurt child might like. Once the child who's crying has calmed down some, then I might move to words, depending on how verbal the aggressor is (usually around age 2 ½ or older). I'll say, “It looks like she's feeling a little bit better. Why don't you ask her, 'Will you be OK?'” Usually the child responds with a yes or a nod. Then, especially if I can tell they feel bad, I'll suggest that they say, “I didn't mean to hurt you.” This seems much more specific and relevant than the word “sorry” to me. And, regardless of the circumstances, I think children usually do not mean to hurt one another. Yes, they may have hit the other child, but it seems like it almost always comes as a surprise when the other child bursts into tears as a result. Children at this age are just following their impulses, and they have to learn through repeated experience what the effects of those impulses are, before they can learn to control them.
If the aggressor is old enough (usually starting at age 3 ½ or so), I'll follow the whole experience up with a brief conversation where I'll ask them what happened leading up to the incident, and we'll brainstorm together on what alternatives they might have used. If they wanted a toy that another child had, they could ask if they could use it when they're done, or they could offer something else as a trade. If the other child was trying to take their toy, they could say 'you can use it when I'm done,' or give another toy to that child. If a child wouldn't get out of their way, they could say 'excuse me' or move around the child. If a child was throwing sand on them, they could say, 'please stop throwing sand.'
And always, I strive to remember that children are doing the best they can with the tools they have. Learning to interact with words is a very complex skill, one that takes several years (or, for some of us, a lifetime!) to learn. We caretakers are here to help teach them these skills, and then help them practice again and again and again.