by Loren Silverman
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Now more than ever, we need to be acutely tuned into our children’s mental wellness. As parents, caregivers and educators, it is up to us to help the youngest members of our community address mental health challenges in their earliest years.
Consistently at the forefront of setting standards within local schools, Palmetto Elementary knows the crucial role a child’s mental health plays in their academic experience. Julie Astuto, school counselor and diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, has led Palmetto’s programming for more than three decades.
Ms. Astuto works tirelessly with Principal Eric Torres and the administration to help ensure that each student feels supported and included from the moment they step foot on campus. To that end, she was instrumental in bringing the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “No Place for Hate” initiative to campus. Palmetto was the first elementary school in Florida to implement the program, promoting violence prevention, kindness and peace, and conflict resolution. Ms. Astuto and former Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner worked with neighboring elementary schools to bring it to their campuses, resulting in Pinecrest receiving a “Community of Respect” designation. Palmetto Elementary has proudly been a “No Place for Hate” school for over a decade.
Pillars of the program are thread throughout the school year and campus culture. Students embrace anti-bullying and positive themed weeks such as Peace Week, Kindness Week and Start with Hello Week. Peer-to-peer assistance is encouraged through the “Student Ally” program in which select fifth graders are chosen to receive conflict resolution training from the ADL. The WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program is comprised of fathers and father figures who volunteer their time and serve as positive role models. Their presence on campus acts as an extra set of eyes and ears to enhance school security, reduce bullying and provide a greater sense of campus safety. The “Do the Right Thing” initiative works with the City of Miami Police Department to recognize students for being kind and choosing to make good decisions.
Ms. Mellysa Felipe, mental health coordinator, works with Ms. Astuto to provide in-class mental wellness presentations, referrals and grief counseling as needed. “Fridays with Ms. Felipe” brings relevant topics of concern tailored to each grade into the classroom. Subjects range from gratitude practice, positive self-talk, mindfulness, test anxiety and more. Since the pandemic and the uptick in mental health needs for students, an additional professional position of student services support specialist has also been added. This past year, “Girl Talk” was created for fifth-grade girls to help identify relational aggression and friendship issues and to encourage peer-to-peer empowerment. In an additional effort to normalize positive mental health habits, mindfulness tips and exercises are given during morning announcements.
Ms. Astuto, Ms. Felipe and teachers work hand in hand to identify and assist individual student needs. Mindfulness breaks are available, and children can join Ms. Felipe for a “walk and talk” to discuss any challenges they may be experiencing. Palmetto’s emotional support dog — one of only six in Dade County — is also available for walks, a ball toss, or to sit with children experiencing anxiety.
When asked what we can do to reinforce these initiatives, Ms. Astuto says to listen to your children. Keep communication open. Take all their feelings seriously without dismissal. It is up to us to work together to support our children as they navigate their feelings, many of which have been intensified in this post-pandemic world.