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Teaching tools to cope  

New state law requires that students learn to deal with grief 

According to the oft-cited psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

You could say another stage is the result of state legislation. A bill signed early last month by Gov. Phil Murphy requires health and gym teachers in state public schools to instruct students in grades eight to 12 on the physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of grief and offer coping mechanisms, according to nj.gov.

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The measure ensures that grief will now be part of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. It also requires schools to offer age-appropriate grief resources that include in-school support; mental-health crisis help; and individual and group therapy, according to the website. 

The state board of education will now provide standards for implementing the measure in schools.

“Grief can be a debilitating experience that lasts a lifetime when not addressed properly,” said Murphy. ” … It is my hope that prioritizing the teaching of grief and loss in schools will provide students with the tools and resources they need to cope with the challenges of life.”

While students already have access to counselors and mental-health support, the new law requires additional help for kids dealing with unresolved grief that can hurt academic performance and disproportionately affect vulnerable youth. 

The legislation’s co-sponsor, state Sen. Jon Bramnick, told nj.com that legislative support for the measure was unanimous and that he believes it is the first of its kind in the country. 

And not a moment too soon. COVID caused its share of mental-health and academic setbacks in schools – especially in teens. More than 6,000 kids lost a parent during the pandemic, according to a report published in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).

But grief has no time frame. A Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (CBEM) cited on nj.gov shows that one out of 13 children in New Jersey will experience the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18, something that has already impacted an estimated 142,000 of them state-wide.

It can be difficult to identify those students in school, so bringing attention to the issue of grief and providing student support – as the new measure requires – will be key.

“Who teaches a child how to deal with a friend who lost a mother?” Bramnick asked when he introduced the bill in 2022, according to nj.com. “I didn’t learn anything in school about that … I think even adults don’t know what to say to someone when there is that kind of tragic loss.”

Laurence Cohen Ph.D. wrote on the Psychology Today website that what to say includes gently – but truthfully – introducing the topic of grief. He also cited reactions to the emotion that commonly include an inability to focus in the classroom. 

With the grief bill, instructors can not only help kids who’ve already had a loss, but prepare those who haven’t. 

“By giving students the tools to navigate the complex emotions that surround grief and loss,” said Assemblyman Sterley Stanley, “we are not only ensuring they can be more resilient, but also equipping them with skills to navigate life’s challenges and uncertainties.”

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