A new state law will require New Jersey schools to incorporate lessons on grief into health education classes to help students understand the physical and emotional effects of loss and identify healthy coping strategies.
The law, signed Jan. 4 by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, will make New Jersey one of the few states that specifically mentions grief in its learning standards. Connecticut and Massachusetts also have such requirements.
While grief and loss are universal human experiences, they are too often overlooked in school programs and teacher training, child psychologists said.
“Making it part of the curriculum normalizes talking about it, and that’s an important thing,” said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Childhood grief has long been a concern for educators, but it has taken on increased prominence since the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. About 379,000 U.S. children had lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID by June 2023, researchers estimate.
Many more experienced the death of family friends or relatives during the pandemic.
And countless other students have faced more routine encounters with loss, like the death of a family pet.
“This is content that people wanted and needed at a time when it was most pressing,” Schonfeld said. “But now that the pandemic is sort of receding, we are seeing that grief was always a common issue in schools.”
And, even if students have not yet dealt with grief, understanding it can prepare them to support their peers and face losses that come later in a healthy way, he said.
Taking a skills-based approach to health education
New Jersey’s new requirement comes as health educators around the country have worked to broaden their lessons to incorporate concepts like addressing mental health concerns and making responsible decisions.
While the Society of Health and Physical Educators, the professional organization for health educators, doesn’t specifically include grief in its model standards, the group hopes the skills-based approach to identifying and managing emotions it recommends will help students learn to cope, said Sarah Benes, the organization’s president.
“By focusing on skills, it supports transfer across a range of emotions and building the toolbox students can access when managing difficult situations, including grief,” she said.
New Jersey’s law requires the state’s board of education to amend health-education standards for 8th through 12th grades to include “the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms of grief; coping mechanisms and techniques for handling grief and loss; and resources available to students, including in-school support, mental health crisis support, and individual and group therapy.” The bill also requires the state to provide schools with age-appropriate resources to support students.
Students’ “exposure to stress, loss and trauma has increased in recent years, making them more vulnerable to the negative consequences that can impact their lives,” state Sen. Joseph Cryan, a Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “Making them aware of the symptoms of trauma, informing them of available resources, offering coping techniques and giving them the opportunity to express their grief can make a real difference in their health and well-being. In fact, it can save lives.”
A spokesperson for New Jersey’s education department did not respond to questions about the process for drafting the new standards.
The state has frequently forged the path on new learning standards. In 2022, for example, it became the first to require lessons on media-literacy starting in kindergarten.
School districts around the country have sometimes resisted state mandates for professional development or student lessons on social issues, arguing that, however well-intentioned, they pile more obligations onto schools’ already over-full plates. But groups like the New Jersey School Boards Association supported the new grief requirement.
Students benefit from more discussion of death, psychologist says
Schonfeld also helps lead the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a growing network of child advocacy and education groups that has worked for 10 years to helps schools address student grief.
Much of his recent work has focused on professional development for teachers, who are often eager for answers to very practical questions, like how to avoid “saying the wrong thing” when a student faces loss.
In the earliest days of COVID-19, Schonfeld held virtual trainings for New York City teachers as their city became the U.S. epicenter for the pandemic.
“They found that, if they were given the language and knew what to say, they really wanted to say it,” he said.
Schonfeld said the New Jersey law is a good step. While students of all ages can benefit from discussions of grief, they can actually start much earlier than 8th grade, the youngest level for which standards are required in the legislation.
As part of an early-career fellowship, Schonfeld piloted lessons on grief for children as young as 4 and 5 in a Baltimore elementary school. While some skeptics said those children were too young to discuss concepts like mortality, Schonfeld said the lessons helped them better process ideas they were already grappling with and demonstrate healthy support behaviors for struggling friends.
In one class, students insisted Schonfeld pause a video lesson when they noticed a classmate was crying as he remembered the death of a family dog a year prior.
“They all offered really appropriate support, which is atypical for 2nd grade,” he said. “When you help kids figure out how to support someone, they can use that and they want to use that.”
New Jersey’s new standards will be most effective if they focus on providing students with practical skills, rather than theoretical concepts, Schonfeld said.
“Death is a really hard thing,” he said. “But it’s going to happen to everyone. If you can decrease the stigma, that helps.”