Affirming Gender in Elementary School: Social Transitioning

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Being a boy or a girl, for most children, is something that feels very natural. Most children’s gender identity aligns with their biological sex. However, for some children the match between biological sex and gender identity is not so clear. These children, as young as two or three years of age, may consistently and persistently communicate that they are or wish to be a different gender, that they are in the wrong body, or that their outside (biological sex) does not match who they feel like they are on the inside (gender identity.) There are also children who feel they are both male and female or feel they are neither and do not want to have to choose.

A Gender Continuum

When most people think of gender, they think of two distinct categories – male and female. More recently people are recognizing that gender is not a binary, but rather a continuum. For example, if you think about the adults that you know or see, you can probably think of some women who seem very feminine, some who seem more masculine in appearance, interests, or manners, and many who are somewhere in between.  At the same time you can probably also think of men who fall along a range with some who seem very masculine, some who do not, and many in between. These are the many ways that people experience themselves and express themselves on a gender continuum. The same is true of children.

To assume that we can separate boys and girls into discrete categories goes against what we now know about gender identity development as children express themselves along the continuum of gender. There is an increasing amount of research showing that when children are not allowed to express their true selves, they become depressed, have a harder time focusing on learning, and in some cases will think about or complete suicide.

Socially Transitioning

One of the first steps that all people – adults or children – take, if they feel that their internal sense of gender and their biological sex do not match, is to socially transition to living in a way that expresses their internal sense of who they are. This can also be called living in their affirmed gender. Some students may take this step to socially transition during elementary school. Some elementary age students may also start to take hormone blockers in order to delay the changes that occur with puberty so that they can be older before making other decisions regarding gender transitioning.

A Welcoming School for All Students

Creating schools that nurture academic achievement, provide physical and emotional safety and welcome all students are common goals. As educators, we can concentrate on creating environments that are gender expansive and fluid, where children can express a wide range of emotions, interests, and behaviors that fall anywhere along the gender continuum. A gender inclusive environment affirms all children and allows them to express their interests and find confidence in their strengths.

Planning and Communications

  • Social transitioning goes more smoothly for a student when school personnel and parents/guardians work together and maintain regular communication and check-ins.
  • Talk with other school administrators or counselors whose schools have already successfully worked with a student who has socially transitioned.
  • Assess steps needed for your particular school and school district. What will help the student feel safe at school and help the transition go well in your school? Do you need some professional development or advice? Who do you need to speak with or communicate with? What policies or forms need to be reviewed? Make a plan for your school.
  •  Develop common language on gender and socially transitioning that educators can use to respond to parents and colleagues. (See: A Few Definitions to Help Understand Gender
    and Sexual Orientation for Educators and Parents/Guardians
    .)
  • Identify key personnel responsible for answering the more difficult questions or concerns parents and families may have and who can serve as a resource to others.
  • Be prepared to talk with the media, if the need arises. If there is a media liaison in your district, talk with them about how to respond, if the media contacts your school or district.
  • Each student and each family have different concerns regarding privacy and confidentiality around social transitioning. Unless you know otherwise, ensure privacy and share information with school staff only on a need-to-know basis. Legally, it should be handled as one would a medical issue under a student’s right to privacy.
  • Children are more resilient and able to cope when they feel that someone understands them and is on their side. Identify a safe person/or people on staff for a student to talk to at school. Often they have endured teasing and may not have felt safe to report it.

Respecting a Student’s Affirmed Gender

  • Honor a student’s preferred pronoun and name. Discuss with parents/caregivers and the student what name to use on forms and which gender marker (M or F) to check off. Allow students and families the ability to use preferred names on lists that could be seen by other students or families such as class lists, grade postings, or seating charts.
  • Ensure that students are welcome and safe to wear the clothes, hairstyle, and accessories that are congruent to their affirmed gender.
  • Be thoughtful about class placement for a gender expansive student. Take into consideration the classroom teacher’s experience and training. Think about peer connections for the student.
  • Be clear about restroom accessibility. Discuss with the student and their family. If you think it is necessary, clarify the policy within your district. It will be an important question for the student and one that others may (or will) raise as well. Be prepared to discuss it.  
  • Allow students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Have a restroom available for any student who desires privacy.
  • Avoid situations that force children to make gendered choices, such as boys line up here and girls line up there. Divide students by last names, colors they’re wearing, or parts of the room.

Proactive and Reactive Strategies to Handle Bullying and Hurtful Teasing

  • Building a strong sense of community and acceptance of all differences in the classroom and school is a critical proactive strategy for creating a safe environment for gender expansive students.
  • Provide professional development for all school personnel—teachers, aides, counselors, administrative staff, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers—on strategies to prevent and stop bullying. Educate adults in the school about the complexity of gender and the importance of gender inclusive classrooms for all students.
  • Adults in the school need time to practice and be prepared with simple phrases to stop gendered teasing and bullying; they need practice intervening when students are limiting
    each other based on gender; and they need to be ready to educate students on why it is
    wrong or hurtful. (Check out: Be Prepared for Questions and Put-Downs on Gender.)
  • Develop plans to have extra coverage in hallways, the playground and the lunchroom to monitor and stop hurtful teasing and bullying behavior.
  • Listen for and become aware of name-calling and bullying based on gender stereotypes, gender identity and gender expression, so that you can interrupt and talk with students about the harmful effects of stereotyping and prejudice.
  • Work with the students in your school to help them think of ways to be allies when someone is teased or bullied for any reason. (Check out the lesson: Making Decisions: Ally or Bystander)
  • Discuss gender with students by helping them to see how gender stereotypes are limiting.  Share literature and images with them of people who achieve that do not conform to traditional gender roles. (Check out ideas in the lesson plan: Biographies: Determined Girls, Successful Women — Boys and Men Determined to Live Their Dreams, or the bibliography: Looking at Gender Identity with Books for Students.)
  • Hold an evening event for parents and caregivers in your school community to help people understand the complexity of gender and the importance of gender inclusive classrooms for all students. Share with families how to talk about gender in ways that are affirming and developmentally appropriate.