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From the Classroom to School Counseling: Get to Know Dr. Denise Gilstrap

Before joining EdNavigator, Dr. Denise Gilstrap served children and families for more than a decade as a teacher and counselor. She has a very impressive list of degrees, and an even more impressive list of hobbies. We sat down to learn more about her path from teaching to counseling to navigating, and what schools and families can do to support students inside and outside the classroom.

So what brought you to EdNavigator?

My career started with teaching. To be honest, I only went into teaching because I wanted to become a school counselor. It was a requirement in Texas that you have to teach before becoming a school counselor. I figured I would just teach for a few years. But as soon as I started teaching, I loved it. I taught middle school English in Dallas for five years, while getting my counseling degree.

At that five-year mark, I was ready to do something different. There was a lot of talk about what was going on in New Orleans in terms of the charter school movement, and I felt like it would be a great opportunity to get completely out of my comfort zone. I was a really good teacher in Dallas, but I wanted to see if I could teach in a different environment. I came to New Orleans and became a founding teacher for Harriet Tubman Elementary with Crescent City Schools. That was probably the toughest yet most rewarding year of my teaching career. I went from there to Abramson Elementary.

After two years of teaching in New Orleans, I went to the University of Mississippi and got my doctorate in counseling, specializing in play therapy. I worked as a clinical school therapist while I was there and I loved that because I was able to merge my education and clinical backgrounds. I became a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist, as well as a National Board Certified Counselor. After finishing my PhD, I went on to teach at the University of Louisiana Monroe in the graduate counseling program, and while I loved it, I wanted to come back to New Orleans. I learned about EdNavigator and felt it was a great opportunity for me to bring my education and counseling experiences to supporting families.

How do you use your counseling expertise when you're engaging with families?

I always check in on how the kids are doing emotionally and behaviorally. That’s just second nature to me. So often, the focus is on grades and academic progress. But a lot of times schools and even parents don’t completely take into account the social and emotional component that goes into that. That's foundational to academic attainment. If a child is not doing well socially and emotionally and if their basic needs are not being met, they are likely going to struggle. So that’s one of the things I always prioritize when I have conversations with my families.

I’m also checking in with parents about their own well-being. I've worked with a lot of families that have anxiety around getting their kids into a better school. When I’ve supported families in closing schools, it’s very emotional. Their children had been at that school since they were in kindergarten, and now they're in fourth or fifth grade, and they have to find a new school to go to.

I think having that therapeutic presence can be helpful. I’m not engaging in therapy with them, but I’m relying on my therapeutic skills to offer some comfort and empathy. Instead of just focusing on, "Okay. Let's fill out this OneApp," I’m saying, "I hear you and I understand. It's going to be okay. This is how I can help."

That makes a lot of sense. Are you also able to guide families toward resources for further counseling or support as needed?

Absolutely, and I've done that with a few families already. I've gone into classrooms and done behavioral observations with students, and from there sat down and had conversations with the teacher, the principal, and the parent. I've also been able to make suggestions for follow-up services for a couple of families that I navigate for, and they followed through and received those services, so now their students are getting the emotional and behavioral support that they need outside of school.

What could schools do differently to make sure all kids are getting the support they need to succeed?

One thing that comes up in New Orleans a lot, and I think it's starting to come up nationwide, is the need for schools to be more tuned in with the different traumatic experiences that some of our children face. Many children will come in and be labeled as “behavior problems.” A lot of times, we are not considering what experiences a child has gone through that could be contributing to the behavior. So I would love to see schools adopt more trauma-informed practices. I also think schools can do more to use school counselors and social workers to support teachers and school staff in general, and help them focus on different strategies for interacting positively with children who need emotional support.

I think of lot of schools are just lacking the resources. It’s not a Louisiana thing, it's a nationwide thing. You have schools that have like 500 to 1,000 students, and there may only be two or three counselors. They have really large caseloads, and a lot of their work is focused on academics. Of course academic support is a part of the school counselor’s role, and they already wear so many hats. But what schools need is more on-site, intensive mental health support for students.

It’s back-to-school season now. What would you recommend all families do in the transition into a new school year to make sure their kids are in a good place?

The things families can do are simple but they make a huge difference. One thing I would start with is establishing a routine to create a sense of safety and readiness to tackle the school year. I don't just mean have your teeth brushed and be in bed by a certain time. But a routine that also involves daily time to sit down and check in with your child. Talking about feelings and helping students develop a sense of awareness is important. When checking in, parents can ask questions like, "Hey, what are you worried about? What are you looking forward to this school year? What new things would you like to try? What are some goals that you have?"

These questions are especially important for kids who are going into those testing years, when the academics kick up a notch, and they're hearing how important academic growth is. It's a lot of pressure, and that can create anxiety. It’s important to help them develop some relaxation techniques, whether that's deep breathing or practicing mindfulness. I know it sounds difficult, but really it's just helping them learn how to calm themselves and their bodies. One way is taking time to close their eyes and count slowly to ten before they tackle an assignment or take a test.

Finally, it’s important to make time for play. I think we value this more with young kids, but it's just as important with older kids. Getting outside, being physically active, getting them involved in community-based activities or organized sports can really help with the confidence- and character-building. Those things are just as developmentally important as the academics. I’m a play therapist, so I’m always going to advocate for play.

Being a parent is inherently stressful, too. Are there things you recommended for parents to cope with their own anxieties?

I would suggest the same recommendations for parents: practicing mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and scheduling mental health time. Daily self-care is important, whether it's fifteen minutes or one hour. They should also take it easy on themselves and rely on their support system. Parents have so much to tackle daily, and I think they naturally focus more on their child's care than their own. But it's tough to fill our child’s tank if our own tank is empty.

Last question. How do you relax when you’re not working?

How do I relax? I used to run a lot more than I do now, and I recently recommitted to that, so I’m definitely going for jogs. I love to read, shop, and scrapbook. I love to watch movies. I also love to write. I'm an aspiring children's book author. I love it because it gives me a chance to be creative, and it brings in my passion for working with children.