NJ governor approves pilot program for later high school start times, signs legislation requiring mental health instruction for K-12 students

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has signed legislation that will require all New Jersey public schools to include mental health instruction in the health curriculum for grades K-12.

“This legislation is long overdue,” said New Jersey Senator Joseph Vitale. “It has taken our society a long time to recognize the crucial piece of well-being that is mental health. We try to prepare our children by teaching them about science, math, English and physical health. It is time to add mental health to the essential learning for a well-rounded young adult.”

The goal of the legislation is to enhance understanding, attitudes, and behaviors related to mental health to in an effort to promote well-being. The legislation will require the New Jersey Board of Education to review and update the New Jersey student learning standards in comprehensive health and physical education to ensure that mental health education is incorporated in an age-appropriate way in the K through 12 health curriculum.

“We are striving to do all that we can to improve health and wellness for our students. By ensuring that children in grades K through 12 learn about mental health, we can promote a healthier future for New Jersey,” Murphy said.

“As rates of teen suicide and addiction continue to rise, we need to find ways to engage youth about these issues, beginning with comprehensive lessons in schools,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Dan Benson, who was one of the sponsors of the bill. “Students will learn how to recognize the signs of mental illness and where they can go for help. These tools may be incredibly important if they find themselves struggling or see a friend who needs help.” 

Murphy also signed legislation that will require the New Jersey Department of Education to establish a four-year pilot program testing later school start times for high school students. 

“Research shows that academic progress may be negatively impacted by starting school too early,” Murphy said. “By testing the viability of changing start times, we are exploring ways to improve learning outcomes for New Jersey students.”

The pilot study will assess how shifting start times would impact districts overall, including how extracurricular activities may be impacted and how transportation to and from school would be affected. Under the legislation, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet will select five school districts to participate in the pilot program. Those school districts must include urban, suburban, and rural areas of the state.

In Princeton, the school board approved later start times at Princeton High School back in 2018. The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for high schoolers. In 2011, the Brookings Institution reported that moving school start times later especially helps increase test scores for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A 2014 University of Minnesota study found similar effects at 8 public high schools in 3 states: delaying school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later resulted in higher grades and scores on achievement tests in core subjects, and improved attendance and tardiness rates. In the community with the latest start time in the study, car crashes involving teen drivers declined by 70 percent.