The early childhood years are optimal growing years. During these early years, children are learning about themselves and others, grappling with gender roles, learning about their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. The role of teachers and administrators during these times are integral to children building self-confidence and social-emotional skills which leads to academic success.
During the early years, young children are also experimenting. They experiment with identity and their place in the world: boys putting on dresses in the dramatic play area, girls putting on construction hats or playing with cars and trucks in the building blocks area. But, what happens when a four-year old boy and his parents are adamant that he is a she? What happens when the parents of the boy allow him to transition into becoming a girl? The reality is that children are transitioning during the early childhood years, and as research states, “transgender children strongly identify with the other gender, often from age two to four” (Brill and Ryan, n.d, p. 1). What steps should an administrator and staff take to ensure that these families are a welcomed addition to the elementary school community?
According to Green (2004) transgender is a term used to describe people whose self-identification transgresses established gender categories or boundaries. In other words, transgender youth express identities that are different than their assigned birth sex. Many transgender youth experience negative school environments, discrimination, and face more peer rejection and harassment; thus, leading to more mental health difficulties (Marksamer, 2008). According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (2015), two-thirds of all transgender elementary school students endure harassment, with nearly a quarter of them facing that harassment from school staff. These negative school experiences often lead to early school drop-out, discipline issues, and involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Families of transgender children must feel safe and trust that the school and the teachers will work together, with the family. In order to counter the difficulties that young transgender children face in school, here are five steps we share with the pre-service administrators and teachers each semester:
Be a researcher – While LGBTQ is not a new topic, the reality of encountering a transgender child during the early years, is new. Thus, it is important to look for guidance from your central or supervisory office to determine whether there are procedures and policies in place to address the needs of the transgender child. Administrators should also be aware of their responsibilities under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In addition to seeking guidance, take the time to research available literature regarding transgender children. The National Center for Transgender Equality is one resource that provides relevant information and resources, such as the U.S. Department of Education Policy Letter on Transgender Students which explains how schools are required to treat transgender students (www.transequlaity.org).
Be responsive – Reassure the parents that you have heard their concerns and will address them in a timely manner. Be upfront and let the parents know that you may need time to research and to seek resources that will help with planning for the child’s school success. Be diligent in following through by developing a written plan of your actions which should include regular meetings with the family to check on the child’s progress.
Be reflective – Take time to reflect and evaluate your personal beliefs and assumptions. According to Hall et al. (2016), the principal is described as the figurehead of the school, and thereby it is the responsibility of the principal to speak and act as the chief advocate for all children. Focus on meeting the needs of each individual child!
Be collaborative – Team effort is critical to meeting the unique needs of the child. Meet with the key stakeholders to listen, to learn, to reflect, and to plan for the success of the child. Such a meeting should include the counselor, teachers who may interact with the child, a representative from the LGBTQ community, the parents of the child, the school nurse and others who you believe will need to know how to support the child. This will allow all voices to be heard.
Make meaningful connections – During the initial meetings, ask questions of the parents such as, “What do you want from us? Do you want us to keep this a secret?” Do you want us to provide information about transgender children to the entire staff? This is the time to reassure families that their confidentiality will be respected. It is important to understand that the needs and concerns of the parents of transgender children are the same as any other parent who has left their child in your care. Parents want their children to be allowed to be whoever they want to be, to be accepted for who she/he is, and ultimately to be successful.
The school culture should promote a feeling of safety and inclusiveness for families and their children. It is a place where no matter the race, ability, disability, or beliefs, all children can grow, learn, and build positive self-esteem. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the teachers or administrators understand what it means to transition or whether they identify with being transgender. What matters is that teachers and administrators are respectful, caring, supportive, and eager to do whatever is necessary to help all children in their care. “If we are to successfully educate all of our children, we must work to remove the blinders built of stereotypes, monocultural instructional methodologies, ignorance, social distance, biased research, and racism” (Delpit, 2006, p. 182).
Gino, A. (2015). George. New York: NY: Scholastic Press.
Herthel, J. & Jennings, J. (2014). I am Jazz. New York: NY: Penguin Random House Co.
Hoffman, S. & Hoffman, I. (2014). Jacob’s new dress. Albert Whitman & Company
Pepper, R. & Brill, S. (2008). The transgender child: A handbook for families and professionals. Jersey City: NJ: Cleis Press
Polonsky, A. (2014). Gracefully Grayson. Disney-Hyperion.
Websites and Organizations:
National Center for Transgender Equality- www.transequality.org
Parents and Friends of LGBTQ community (PFLAG) – www.pflag.org
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)- www.glaad.org
American Psychological Association (APA)- www.apa.org
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) – www.2.ed.gov
Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC) – www.hrc.org
Teaching Tolerance – www.tolerance.org
Trans Youth Equality Foundation – www.transyouthequality.org
Bweikia Foster Steen is an Associate Professor and Director of Early Childhood Education at Trinity Washington University. She received her doctoral degree from the University of San Francisco in International and Multicultural Education. She has worked in early childhood and elementary settings and has taught on the collegiate level at New York University in the Early Childhood program and George Mason in the Initiatives in Educational Transformation program. Her research deals with promoting academic excellence among children of color during the early years of schooling by implementing developmentally appropriate practices that will promote positive early learning experiences.
Gladys Williams is the Director of the Educational Administration Program at Trinity Washington University. She received her doctoral degree from The George Washington University in Washington, DC in Educational Administration and Policy Studies. She served as a speech/language pathologist, elementary instructional specialist, assistant principal and principal over the span of her career in Prince George’s County Public Schools. Prior to coming to Trinity, she was the Director of the Urban Leadership Academy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She also served as the Director of the Principal Preparation Program at Spalding University in Louisville, KY.