Supporting Transgender Children in the Primary Classroom: A Reflection

Too often in discussions about gender identity the approach taken is extremely narrow. The discourse is largely dominated by the cisgendered, binary perspective that there is ‘male’ and that there is ‘female’ – and that both of these are biologically determined, stable categories. This is further reinforced when the discourse is situated in the context of children. The prevailing attitude is that any identity, theory or social group that destabilises such assumptions are too complicated and/or too ‘subversive’ to merit acknowledgement.  It is therefore unsurprising that when school staff, policy makers and academics come to discus gender identity within the classroom, that transgendered children are usually entirely ignored. What can teachers can do to support such children?

It is important here to emphasise that pastoral care is about people, not statistics. Having a positive and safe environment in which to learn should not be a luxury for only those belonging to the largest social groups, but a fundamental right that is due to all children. Transgendered children matter in schools regardless of how many of them are ‘known’ to school staff. It is ‘Every child matters’ in written policy – it should be so in active practise too. Numbers are irrelevant.

The prominence of biological determinism when discussing gender – combined with the results of an intolerant media – provides all kinds of challenges for teachers in supporting transgendered children. The most obvious of these challenges is that such identities are seen as being ‘taboo.’ As De Palma and Atkinson (2009a) point out, ‘transgender and queer identities are perceived as being too much for the primary school…..[it is] forbidden territory…’  (p. 64). This highlights the central problem. Schools ignore transgender identities because they are seen as being too subversive for a primary school to engage with. In other words, the stigma transgender identities and gender diversity have attached to them has permeated schools just as deeply as it has society in general. In order for this to change what is needed is a concerted effort by teachers to ‘rethink’ gender, against the dominant discourse. This is by no means an easy task. However – if teachers are unable to reflect upon their own prejudices, their classrooms are not safe places. If teachers are unwilling to challenge stereotypes, their schools are not inclusive communities.  If teachers refuse to see the needs of the children they are responsible for because it is easier not to, then they fail in their professional responsibilities. An inclusive curriculum and classroom are both necessary in order for teachers to support transgender children in developing their gender identity.

Right from the very beginning of schooling, there are opportunities to include gender diversity within the curriculum. Both the Early Years Foundation Stage and the National Curriculum provide explicit areas where personal development is stressed. In the EYFS this comes under the area, ‘Personal, Social and Emotional Development’. In the National Curriculum it is found under Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE).  There are obvious opportunities for transgendered identities to be included within the curriculum, but in the majority, they tend to go unnoticed or ignored because of social attitudes.

Regardless of whether a child is known to be transgendered or is not open about their identity, their experience of school is still likely to be improved by curriculum inclusion. This approach could mean other children – and other adults – become more aware of what it is to be transgendered and how it might feel to be subjected to negative attitudes. In turn, this hopefully would lead to a more positive and accepting classroom community, where all children are aware that different people identify their gender differently, and these choices should be celebrated.

The need for teachers to be self-reflective is something that is fundamentally necessary in supporting such children across all areas of school life. Supporting transgendered children in developing their gender identity requires teachers to examine their own attitudes – and it is important that this occurs even when the solution to helping such children seems obvious. A good example of this can be seen bullying. In many ways bullying appears the most straightforward area where teachers can actively support transgendered children in developing their gender identity. Anti-bullying policies are written into overarching school policies, and there is even official guidance (GIRES, 2008) on combating transphobic bullying in schools. It would seem therefore that all teachers need to do in order to support transgendered children to feel safe enough to develop and express their gender identity is to quash transphobic bullying from other children. However, to truly support transgendered children in developing their gender identity, teachers need to go beyond such an approach. Combating transphobic bullying is not about simply ‘stamping out’ offensive/abusive behaviour, but is about changing the very discourse that surrounds transgender identities and gender in the primary school.

Given the way society tends to view transgender identity, it is obvious that for teachers to promote inclusion within the curriculum careful thought, planning and self-reflection are required. The overarching implication for practise is that teachers need to be explicitly positive and vocal about transgendered identities and people, and that this needs to be seen in real, concrete activities within the curriculum. This is not something that is necessarily easy to do in practise. For many schools transgender identities are literally unmentionable within the classroom. There is therefore, a need for fundamental change in the way schools and teachers approach transgender identities and gender more generally in order for this practise to become reality. Schools must feel confident in approaching discussions about transgendered identities within the classroom. For this to happen, there needs to be a strong partnership with parents and carers. If teachers speak openly with parents and carers in advance about how and why they are incorporating transgendered identities alongside other identities and areas of work, it seems less likely that misinformed negative repercussions will result at a later date.

If teachers cannot – or will not – explicitly include transgendered identities in their classrooms, curriculae and communities then they will never be able to adequately support transgendered children in developing their gender identity.  It is ridiculous to argue that teachers can effectively support transgendered children in this way without first ensuring they are providing a positive and safe space for their children. It is equally absurd to state that a teacher could empathise with such children in order to support their development without challenging the dominant discourse surrounding gender and transgender identities. The implications are clear – teachers must look inwards towards their own attitudes to transgender identities and how these attitudes may affect their practise. Only by doing so are they likely to be able to move forwards in helping transgendered children developing their gender identity.

Kai Smith, (Primary PGCE student with early years specialism, Goldsmiths)

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