School policies and practices can profoundly affect children whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
In the past decade, as transgender people have received greater visibility and acceptance, as well as increased legal protections, educators have begun to examine their school policies and practices with an eye toward legal compliance and a new understanding that gendered environments may be harmful to children, particularly those who are transgender or gender expansive. Educators are asking themselves how they can create an environment where all students, including transgender and gender-expansive children, feel they belong.
What does it mean to be transgender?
If the topic of transgender people is new to you, you probably have lots of questions: Are sex and gender the same thing? How are they related to sexuality? How many people are transgender?
It may help to begin with the understanding that sex, gender, and sexuality are three different concepts. Sex refers to a complex combination of physiological characteristics, including chromosomes, hormones, and anatomy. Sex is often thought of as a binary: male or female. However, approximately 1.7% to 2% of people are intersex, meaning that their physical bodies do not conform to standard definitions of male and female (Blackless et al., 2000). Despite these variations, sex is regularly assigned at birth based on the appearance of external genitalia.
In contrast to sex, gender is one’s internal sense of identity. It is generally assumed that male and female babies will develop gender identities as boys and girls, respectively. People whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth are known as cisgender, while people whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth are known as transgender. In the United States, 0.6% of adults, 1.4 million people, identify as transgender (Herman et al., 2017).
Practices intended to support transgender students were often helpful to all students.
The term gender expansive is increasingly being used for people who challenge cultural expectations regarding gender roles, identities, expressions or norms. Gender-expansive individuals may further describe themselves as non-binary, gender fluid, or genderqueer. This ever-changing language mirrors our growing understanding that gender can be experienced in many ways and does not always conform to the restrictive binary categories of masculine and feminine.
Remember that the term transgender is an adjective, not a verb or noun. Just as a person might be described as tall or smart, a person could be described as transgender (but not transgendered or a transgender). And, just like cisgender people, transgender people can have any sexual orientation: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and so on.
New terms and concepts can be confusing, and many people fret about how they can know someone’s gender. If you need to address or speak about a person whose gender you’re unsure of, it’s often easy enough to use their name instead of pronouns. If you say the wrong thing, remember that we all make mistakes — that’s how we learn. What’s important is our willingness to apologize for our mistakes and do our best to use the desired terms in the future. Most important, cisgender people need to be open to learning from gender-expansive and transgender people.
Transgender and gender-expansive children in school
While there is no conclusive data for children under the age of 13, 0.7% of teenagers ages 13-17, or approximately 150,000 youth, identify as transgender (Herman et al., 2017). Therefore, schools with more than 143 children are almost certain to have at least one transgender child. The idea that children can be transgender often surprises cisgender adults who wonder how children can know their gender. However, developmental psychologists agree that children’s core gender identity develops by the age of three and continues to develop through young adulthood (Martin & Ruble, 2010), a fact that is seldom questioned in non-transgender children.
Some transgender children enter school as their affirmed gender identity, while others may undergo a social transition while enrolled. Social transition is reversible and can include a change in hairstyle and clothing or the use of a new name and pronouns. Health professionals recommend social transition as a way to affirm children’s gender and reduce their distress or dysphoria (Olson et al., 2016). On the other hand, failure to recognize transgender people’s identity exacerbates gender dysphoria and can lead to feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, self-hatred, depression, and even self-harm.
One mom described how her child’s gender-expansive presentation led to a social transition (the child’s name, like others in this article, is a pseudonym):
Carter is 11 now. At a very early age, he started having strong gender preferences, strong male gender presentation, toys, TV shows, you name it. Really from when he could speak he was telling us who he was. It just progressed from there. At first we thought we had a tomboy, but when we started to see the signs of distress we realized it was more than that. In 3rd grade, we really started to explore gender identity versus gender presentation. Is our child transgender? By the end of 3rd grade, we made the decision to have him socially transition and live as a boy. Subsequent to that, we’ve legally changed his name and his birth certificate and his passport and we’re in the process of getting a hormone blocker, but that’s down the road a bit.
As this mom describes, Carter has socially and legally transitioned. Young children do not undergo medical transition, which can involve hormone suppression, hormone replacement, and/or confirmation surgeries.
Gender can be experienced in many ways and does not always conform to the restrictive binary categories of masculine and feminine.
Whether a child is gender expansive or transgender, schools are legally required to treat these students in ways that are consistent with their gender identity. Rulings in five states — Michigan, Maine, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — make clear that transgender children are protected under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2018). Further protections for transgender students come from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits schools from sharing students’ transgender status.
For educators whose professional training does not address gender-inclusive practices, it can be challenging to know how to best support these students (Mayo, 2013). To better understand how educators are navigating this question, I surveyed more than 70 educators from 20 elementary schools located across six states. The following sections present insights from districts, teachers, and principals with experience supporting gender-expansive and transgender children.
Districts: Writing supportive policy
School districts set the stage by writing policies that can guide educators’ actions. A supportive gender policy should attend to matters such as privacy and disclosure, student records and information systems, use of names and pronouns, dress codes, sex-separated facilities and activities, and harassment and bullying (Orr & Baum, 2015). Written policies should clarify both students’ rights and educators’ responsibilities. Unfortunately, districts are often reluctant to initiate discussions about gender, preferring to avoid the topic until a specific issue arises. But in the absence of a clear gender policy, educators may be uncertain about how to improve the educational experiences of gender-expansive and transgender youth. A proactive approach enables districts to structure productive dialogue and avert problems before conflict occurs.
The first nationally recognized school policy in support of transgender students resulted from a lawsuit about gender bias. In 2013, a transgender 7th grader who was enrolled at Arcadia Unified School District (USD) in California filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) alleging discrimination (National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2015). The investigation revealed that the student had been barred from activities and facilities that were accessible to his male peers, and the resulting OCR Resolution Agreement required Arcadia USD to treat the student as male in accordance with his gender identity and to develop policies to protect his right to equal access to all programs, activities, and facilities. This policy became the first OCR-approved policy related to transgender students’ educational rights (Arcadia USD, 2015). Since that ruling, many more districts have decided to address the topic of gender head-on rather than wait for a problem to arise, or worse, a lawsuit.
One Pennsylvania district made it a goal to create the best gender policy in the country. First, on the assumption that employees lacked information, not compassion, they provided training about transgender and gender-expansive children to all district employees, including administrators, teachers, support staff, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Second, the district invited all its employees to participate in the policy-making process, increasing transparency. The resulting team of 15 people collaboratively analyzed policies from six other districts and wrote their own supportive gender policy. The district’s success grew out of a willingness to embrace the topic of transgender youth as a learning opportunity.
Principals: Leading the way
While policy can smooth the way to supportive practices, principal leadership is at the core of creating a supportive school culture. How do principals develop the knowledge they need?
Supportive elementary school principals interviewed were proactive in their quest to learn, even though only a few had any knowledge about transgender people, some worked in religiously and politically conservative communities, and all were nervous about “getting it right.” One Massachusetts principal explained:
I hadn’t had a personal experience close enough to provoke or probe my thinking. I was of the old way of thinking, and I hope not in a judgmental way, but I didn’t have enough information . . . I looked at things through the sexual identity lens. I didn’t appreciate that gender identity was something real, that didn’t have ties to sexual preference.
To develop their knowledge, these principals read books, hired consultants, and sought information from organizations such as Gender Spectrum and GLSEN.
In addition, principals facilitated opportunities for teachers and staff to learn about transgender youth, such as by dedicating professional learning time to the topic and inviting experts to present information and answer questions. Another Massachusetts principal shared:
I trained my own staff about the terms, the definitions, what their roles and responsibilities are. I provided them with some handouts. We talked about the definitions. We talked about some of the laws, the ones I felt they needed to know about in terms of bathroom issues, parental rights, and student rights.
Principals also created opportunities for the larger school community to learn about transgender children. They hosted panels of transgender adults, presentations by parents of transgender children, and book discussions. These expansive learning opportunities helped create a culture of acceptance and pave the way for gender-inclusive practices.
Even with the benefit of knowledge, these principals faced difficult decisions. Many were concerned about backlash, and they wondered what information needed to be communicated and with whom. For example, do parents need to know the school library has books with gender-expansive characters? Do parents need to know when a student in their child’s class socially transitions? Faced with tough decisions, the principals took a child-centered approach, talking with the student’s family about how to best affirm and support their child. Through these conversations, they found that some parents wanted to send an informational letter to fellow families, while others preferred not to make an announcement. Some children preferred the privacy of a gender-neutral bathroom while others wanted to use the bathroom with their peers.
None of the 20 principals experienced significant backlash. On average, each responded to one or two concerned parents. One principal in a K-3 school described how she handled one anxious parent:
A parent called me and was out of her mind on the phone saying, “What are we supposed to do? That’s a boy using the girls’ bathroom. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that. My daughter doesn’t feel comfortable.” . . . I said to her, “Your child is welcome to use the nurse’s bathroom.” It came to me naturally . . . Here we give everyone what they need, and [use of the girls’ bathroom is] what Georgia needed. And the other child did not choose to use the nurse’s bathroom, which is how I knew it was a parent issue and not a student issue. After that one conversation, it never went anywhere else.
This principal’s philosophy of giving everyone what they need reflects the notion that human and civil rights can be extended without reducing or compromising the rights of others. In fact, practices intended to support transgender students were often helpful to all students. Principals reported that everyone benefited from access to new information, less restrictive language, and private bathroom stalls.
Teachers: Promoting a sense of belonging
Even when they have supportive principals, teachers still face the challenge of knowing how to put policy into practice. Specifically, what educational practices can promote students’ sense of belonging?
Sadly, many transgender and gender-expansive children do not feel included in their classroom community, and tragically, many of these children experience harassment or worse. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that “54 percent of those who were out or perceived as transgender in K-12 were verbally harassed, nearly one-quarter (24%) were physically attacked, and 13% were sexually assaulted in K-12 because of being transgender” (James et al., 2016, p. 9). These kinds of negative experiences put transgender students at risk for social exclusion, emotional distress, and disrupted learning (Kosciw et al., 2016). The good news is that teachers can make changes in their classrooms that significantly impact children’s sense of belonging.
Across the 20 elementary schools, the teachers interviewed created gender-inclusive classroom cultures by changing their language, specifically by replacing “boys and girls” with non-gendered terms such as “friends,” “scholars,” or “children.” Similarly, many teachers sought non-gendered ways to organize and manage the classroom. A 4th-grade charter school teacher in Rhode Island, shared: “I never call my kids boys and girls. We don’t line up boy-girl. We don’t ever split by boys and girls. We never play boys versus girls.” She further explained her rationale, stating:
[The use of] “boys and girls” doesn’t involve everybody. I teach a whole social studies unit on gender identity, and we discuss that many people believe there are two genders, but there are actually many ways that people identify their gender. People create their own words. People choose words that match the way they feel. We talk about the difference between gender and sex, but I don’t say boys and girls because those aren’t words that everybody identifies with. That would be like saying blondes and brunettes when there were redheads in the classroom, right? It doesn’t include everybody.
As this teacher explained, gendered language can have a limiting effect and make some students feel excluded. To facilitate inclusivity, teachers avoided gender and found other ways to manage their classroom. For example, asking students to line up in accord with their favorite foods, musicians, or authors is both fun and inclusive. Teachers also eliminated “boy” and “girl” bathroom passes and instead created generic passes all students can use. These small but significant shifts in language can facilitate all students’ sense of belonging.
To facilitate inclusivity, teachers avoided gender and found other ways to manage their classroom.
In addition to changing their language, teachers also used literature to introduce and discuss gender. Teachers varied in their approach, but their efforts fell into two broad categories. Sometimes, teachers took a facilitative approach, deliberately making age-appropriate books available without planning specific activities aimed at learning about gender. This way, conversations about gender were initiated by children and facilitated by the teacher. When opportunities arose, facilitative teachers asked questions aimed at growing children’s critical-thinking skills, such as, “If it’s OK for girls to wear pants, is it OK for boys to wear skirts?”
Other times, teachers took an instructive approach, intentionally designing activities that would expand children’s understanding of gender beyond cisgender identities and binary categories. One kindergarten teacher in New York invited Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie is Jamie (2018), to read her picture book to the kindergartners and their 5th-grade reading buddies, intentionally initiating a conversation about gender. A librarian at a New Jersey school serving preschoolers and kindergartners used a gender-expansive puppet to debunk the notion of boys’ and girls’ books and expand the range of books that children might read.
Changing habits to create belonging
Schools should be inclusive spaces where all students feel they belong, including transgender and gender-expansive children. Too frequently, schools promote gendered practices that cause distress for children, often unintentionally. While habits can be challenging to change, there is both a legal and educational imperative to make school programs and practices gender inclusive. Proactive districts and supportive leaders provide learning opportunities to facilitate change. Through the actions of affirming educators, schools can be supportive spaces for all children, of all genders.
Arcadia Unified School District. (2015, April 16). Transgender students: Ensuring equity and nondiscrimination (Policy bulletin). www.nclrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Transgender-Policy-Bulletin-Approved-w-corrections-April-2015.pdf.
Blackless, M., Charuvastra, A., Derryck, A., Fausto-Sterling, A., Lauzanne, K., & Lee, E. (2000). How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology, 12, 151-166.
Herman, J.L., Flores, A.R., Brown, T.N.T., Wilson, B.D.M., & Conron, K.J. (2017). Age of individuals who identify as transgender in the United States. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.
James, S.E., Herman, J.L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The report of the 2015 U.S. transgender survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E.A., Giga, N.M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D.J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.
Martin, C.L. & Ruble, D.N. (2010). Patterns of gender development. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 353-381.
Mayo, C. (2013). LGBTQ youth and education: Policies and practices. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
National Center for Lesbian Rights. (2015). Case summary and history: Student v. Arcadia Unified School District. San Francisco, CA: Author. www.nclrights.org/cases-and-policy/cases-and-advocacy/student-v-arcadia-unified-school-district.
National Center for Transgender Equality. (2018). Federal case law on transgender people and discrimination. Washington, DC: Author. https://transequality.org/federal-case-law-on-transgender-people-and-discrimination.
Olson, K.R., Durwood, L., DeMeules, M., & McLaughlin, K.A. (2016). Mental health of transgender children who are supported in their identities. Pediatrics, 137 (3), 1-8.
Orr, A. & Baum, J. (2015). Schools in transition: A guide for supporting transgender students in K-12 schools. NCLR & Gender Spectrum.
Citation: Mangin, M. (2018). Supporting transgender and gender-expansive children in school. Phi Delta Kappan 100 (2), 16-21.