CULTIVATING GENDER-EXPANSIVE SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS FROM ELEMENTARY ON
“I hope you had the very best birthday, my sweet princess boy,” Vanessa Ford told her child, following a lavish birthday party. Upon hearing this, the 4-year-old looked Ford in the eye and said, “Mom, I’m not a boy. I’m a girl.”
“The cork popped out of our young son, and out flew our young daughter,” Ford explains in a spoken piece called “Listen to Your Child.”
That was the day Ford and her husband, JR, found out their child was a “girl in her heart and her brain.”
Within three months of the birthday party, their child “socially transitioned” to girlhood and became their daughter. A social transition allows transgender or gender nonconforming youth to express their gender identity through their outward appearance (e.g., clothing, hairstyle) and does not involve any medical interventions.
The girl then chose a new name, Ellie. The couple’s eldest child, Ronnie, “was the first person to start to flip the pronouns and call her his sister … He was right on track before the adults were,” their father says.
To protect the psychological and emotional health of children like Ellie, experts say educators need to take the same approach as the Fords in accepting transgender and nonconforming youth by establishing gender-expansive classrooms and school climates.
Creating safe spaces in which all students are given equal access to all colors, toys, and activities promotes that well-being, according to Aidan Key. Key is founder and executive director of Gender Diversity, a nonprofit organization that provides support and education to parents and teachers on gender issues.
There are obstacles to creating a safe space for all children — such as adults who don’t understand this underrepresented group, bullying, and questions about which bathroom a child uses — but simple acts and changes on the part of faculty and administrators can make all the difference. It did for Ellie, her father says.
Ensuring Ellie is supported both at home and at school “is a life and death situation,” JR Ford says.
Experts from schools around the country agree. They shared their ideas for creating safe spaces and tackling the obstacles school leaders might encounter.
Quelling Adults’ Anxiety
The first step toward creating gender-inclusive environments for children, Key says, is to address adults’ fears and misconceptions about transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. Societal representations of this underrepresented group are “caricatured and deeply inaccurate,” Key says, perpetuating themes of “mental illness, sexual deviancy, and deception.”
For over a decade, Key has led trainings in hundreds of schools throughout the United States. Across the map, he found that fears and questions are consistent. Thus, the initial work he does with teachers and administrators involves identifying and deconstructing misinformation and sharing the latest science about the relationship between gender identity and the brain.
Like Key, Ellie’s mother also leads workshops for pre-service teachers, principals, and superintendents. Ford says adults usually don’t know the basics. “The big piece that a lot of people are missing is ‘trans 101.’ What does transgender mean? Who are transgender people? What are the words that we’re talking about?” she says.
In Key’s trainings, he invites educators to suggest scenarios that raise concerns for them. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody say, ‘Well what about the bathroom?’ … I think that’s a conversation starter … ‘What about the bathrooms? What do you think might happen?’” he says.
Another misconception Key works to counteract is that gender and sexuality are connected. As Ford puts it, “Sexuality is who you love and go to bed with, and gender is who you go to bed as.”
“I need that kindergarten teacher and every other teacher to recognize that they’re not looking at a gay child,” Key says. “They’re looking at a child whose gender expression might be different than what is expected. That might be a boy who prefers the company of girls, or who would love to wear a skirt to school, whose favorite color is pink, … the girl who wishes to get a short haircut and loves to play soccer. Those are things that fall into the category of gender expression, not sexuality.”
Key suggests several more tips to alleviate other fears:
Administrators could invite anxious parents to campus for in-person conversations to address their questions and concerns.
School leaders could explicitly thank parents for bringing their concerns to the table and let them know they are not alone — school personnel are aware of them and are working to educate themselves.
School principals could communicate to parents that establishing a gender-inclusive school climate is not about changing people’s faith values or advancing liberal cultural norms. Rather, it is part of the school’s responsibility to create a safe and inclusive environment for all children.
Creating a Gender-Inclusive School Climate
Initiating conversations with children about gender inclusivity is often less complicated than it can be with adults, experts say. “When a transgender or non-binary student comes out to their peers during a social transition, sharing their name and preferred pronouns, classmates often respond with, ‘OK, can we still play dinosaurs together at recess?’” says Johanna Eager, director of Welcoming Schools, a professional development program for elementary school educators with a focus on supporting LGBTQ+ students.
Eager says setting gender-inclusive norms begins at home. Here are some practical ways she and other educators incorporate gender inclusivity in their classrooms.
Mix or rearrange traditionally gendered toys and learning materials so all students can play and learn together free of gender stereotypes.
Highlight posters, books, and work examples in your classroom that show people of many genders and gender expressions engaging in activities that transcend gender stereotypes.
Build a classroom that contains both “windows” into other people’s lives and “mirrors” of the students in the classroom, including picture books of transgender children.
Teach students to embrace each other’s gender expression within the first few days of school.
Have teachers write their own names on the board alongside their preferred pronoun. Explain the word “pronoun.” For elementary school children, explain by saying, “Pronouns are words that include he and him, she and her, they and them.
Some other cultures have different pronouns. Those are the ones that we tend to use. I use the terms he and him.” Ask students to share their preferred pronouns. This allows a teacher to convey the message that people don’t automatically know another person’s gender, Key says.
Jennifer Herdina, grade school teacher, Welcoming Schools lead teacher for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin
Encourage students to celebrate the different parts of themselves by first reading the book Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers.
Instruct students to brainstorm a list of their different identities — e.g., daughter, brother, athlete, gamer — which they use to decorate locker tags.
Instead of referring to students as “boys and girls,” address the class as third-graders, students, scholars, mathematicians, or even by the name of the school mascot. When asking them to line up, have students arrange themselves according to a non-gender specific difference, for example, whether they are wearing tie or Velcro shoes.
Use non-gender-binary bathroom passes.
Ensure all rosters and substitute teacher lists are up-to-date with students’ preferred names and pronouns.
“Some of these [actions] sound so little but make a big difference,” Herdina says. “And when you add up a bunch of little things, it makes an even bigger difference.”
Interrupting Biased-Based Bullying
The California Safe Schools Coalition issued a research brief in 2007 after a decade of study, reporting that almost one-fourth of students in California are bullied because they are not “as masculine as other boys” or “as feminine as other girls.” Approximately one in six students who had expressed their gender in a way that was different from their sex assigned at birth stopped going to school for a period of time due to harassment, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
Despite these statistics, Herdina says bullying does not have a clear definition. “A lot of people don’t have a common understanding of what bullying really is and how it’s different from conflict, and how conflict is different from teasing and joking around,” she says.
“Biased-based bullying” constitutes the majority of bullying behavior in schools and is based on some perceived aspect of a student’s identity, such as race, disability status, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity or gender expression, says Eager.
To prevent this, adults should focus on different roles students play in bullying situations rather than only directing attention to the bully and the person who is being victimized, Herdina says. “Everybody is playing some sort of role whether it’s a defender, a possible defender, a supporter of the student who’s bullying, a follower, or a bystander,” she says. She encourages teachers to address the students who are behaving as followers and supporters and help them become defenders.
Targeted lesson plans can help prevent bullying before it begins. Herdina wrote one based on the book Jacob’s New Dress about a boy who likes to wear dresses to school, prompting his classmates to make fun of him.
The lesson asks students to talk about some of the things they like, such as their favorite colors. This leads to a conversation about stereotypes. Then the teacher reads the story, stopping at different points and discussing the way Jacob is being treated and how students would respond if they were Jacob’s friend. The teacher explains to the class they have choices if they witness bullying behavior. They can say “stop” and speak up, or they can tell an adult.
Eager says teachers should immediately try to stop bullying when they see it. “We help [them] to understand that LGBTQ+ bullying is just as bad as any other type of bullying and it’s absolutely the educator’s responsibility to address it,” she says.
Navigating the Bathroom Issue
Helping children feel safe using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity is another crucial part of supporting health and well-being.
According to GenderSpectrum.org, 63 percent of transgender students avoid using the bathroom at school because they are afraid that others will bully them physically or emotionally. This may cause them to avoid drinking or eating during the day at school, impairing their ability to concentrate in class.
The American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, as well as other professional organizations have endorsed allowing children to use their bathroom of choice. Despite widespread support, bathroom use for transgender and gender nonconforming youth provokes questions and strong emotions among educators, parents, and students.
The main focus should be the cultivation of a safe and respectful school climate, according to GenderSpectrum. This involves explicitly teaching appropriate bathroom etiquette and supervising school bathrooms to prevent bullying.
Another important step is making private bathrooms available to anyone with special needs — including those who desire more privacy due to a health issue or for cultural or religious reasons. Using private bathrooms should be optional, GenderSpectrum says, because mandating transgender students use one could send the message that their gender identity is not legitimate.
The Urgency of This Work
Individuals who don’t receive support grow up to face formidable challenges. Those rejected by their families are nearly three times as likely than the average person to be homeless, 73 percent more likely to be incarcerated, and 59 percent more likely to attempt suicide, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. A 2013 report by the New York City Anti-Violence Project found transgender people — specifically trans women of color — experience some of the highest rates of hate violence and murder in the U.S.
Elementary school administrators, teachers, and staff have the potential to change the course of these grim statistics. Simply calling a transgender child by their preferred name and pronouns can have a life-changing impact on that individual, Ellie’s parents say.
The act of affirming a child’s identity motivates the Fords to pursue public advocacy on behalf of their daughter. They say it’s “pretty cool” that when Ellie turns eight this year, she will have already lived half her life as the gender she identifies with.
“This has really shed a light on how much we can love a person,” JR says. “It has blown the roof off of our expectations.”
Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS.