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The Most Important Back to School Supply

The one thing everyone needs this school year.

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

August 23, 2019

As schools across the country open their doors to our children, we hear a lot about back-to-school supplies – binders, notebooks, mechanical pencils, graph paper, calculators, maybe even a lock to keep things safe in lockers. I know it was one of my favorite rituals at the start of each elementary school grade when I was fortunate enough to be taken to the stationary store with list in hand to stock up on school supplies. Crisp, clean, new notebooks seemed to promise a fresh start to the school year ahead. Last night, I took my kids to the big box store that has all but replaced the local stationery store and felt a little of that same nostalgia as I watched my daughter try to find her favorite color notebooks to match her binders while my son was more focused on finding the right planner to keep his assignments straight.

Having had the opportunity to work with new staff in a local charter school earlier that day, I also found myself reflecting on what I think might be the most important school supply with which to begin the new year. I realized that it is something all teachers, parents, and kids will need this year, but you can’t buy it. And sometimes these days it seems like it is in short supply: Empathy.

When teachers struggle to manage their classroom, parents struggle to get their kids to school on time or to do their homework, or kids struggle to meet the expectations of the new school year, too often the blame game begins:

  • I don’t have issues with him at home, so they must be doing something wrong at school.
  • Clearly, her parents don’t set any limits with her at home, so it’s no surprise she won’t do what we ask here at school.
  • He’s lazy. Nothing motivates him. He just doesn’t care.

Let’s all try to start this school year off with empathy for each other. With the recognition that we are all doing the best we can – teachers, parents, and kids alike. No kid wants to struggle at school. No parent wants their child to be “that kid” at school who is disrupting the class for others and whom everyone is talking about. No teacher wants to feel the overwhelming stress of trying to manage an out-of-control classroom. Blame puts people on the defensive and only makes matters worse because it shuts down our curiosity. Empathy, on the other hand, helps us stay calm or what we psychologists call “regulated.” Empathy is the greatest human regulator. Feeling understood and supported is calming. Calm people are much better problem solvers. This is true partly because empathy encourages curiosity and understanding a problem is required before you can solve it! Assuming the best of each other helps us connect, relate and collaborate more effectively.

Instead of the blame game, empathy in those same situations might sound more like this:

  • He seems to struggle so much more at school. I wonder what’s so much harder about school?
  • She really has a hard time meeting our expectations here. I know her parents are doing the best they can with her too. I wonder what’s getting in her way and how we can all help?
  • He can seem so unmotivated, but I know he would prefer to be doing better. I wonder why it’s such a struggle for him?

So, at the start of this new school year, let’s remember that we are all in this together. Let’s remember that we are all doing the best we can and that with a little empathy we can help each other do even better. As the school year marches on and what were once fresh, new notebooks become a bit frayed at the edges just like us, let’s try not to run out of the most important school supply: Empathy.



 Ablon, JS, Pollastri, AR.  The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior using Collaborative Problem Solving.  New York:  Norton; 2018.

Perry BD, Ablon JS. CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham; 2019.

As originally posted in Psychology Today

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