From a young age, children benefit from learning about topics like respect, consent and well-being because these topics are closely related to their social and emotional development. They need to learn how to understand themselves and others, and how to navigate the world around them. Children start to form their identity from a young age and do so by observing the world around them and making sense of the things they encounter, using their environment as a facilitator, resource and motivation for this process (Green, Kalvaitis & Worster, 2016). Exposure to diversity is an important factor in this learning process (Amer, 2019) as it will show them the myriad of possibilities in expressing and being themselves.

Frueh (2007) describes an identity as a unique combination of identity labels, each one formed after careful deliberation of the observed facts, but nevertheless remaining fluid, continuously influenced by experiences (Schuff, 2016). As part of this development, children will explore their gender identity and require delicate guidance and support to be respectful of those around them and of their own identity.

How to Provide Support

As adults, we underestimate children too often, and neglect to notice their perceptive abilities. They will be confronted with gender assumptions and gender identities long before we sit down with them as adults and explicitly address these topics (Staley & Leonardi, 2019). The media they access, books they read, people they see when walking or conversations they have with peers will mention things they do not yet know and if we do not provide them the opportunities to share their inquiries or have conversations we might risk them becoming confused and perhaps leave them relying on wrongful and disrespectful information. We need to create safe learning environments where they can explore families that look different to their own or can experience their own feelings and identities (Brochin, 2019). Opportunities should be created to discuss and learn more about their environment, and if that environment is not fully representative of a true diversity, additional resources should be included.

Children are curious by nature and will inquire about everything that is new to them (Gidinski, 2019), using ‘why’ and ‘how’, the most used words of any toddler. This inquisitiveness is often directed at the people around them and can be a reason for embarrassment for the parents or other adults hearing the questions. As Williams (n.d.) mentions, it is important to bear in mind that children ask these questions out of curiosity looking at the differences and similarities they perceive and have no intentions of hurting someone. Answering truthfully and respectfully rather than avoiding the question demonstrates the openness that should be associated with personal expression. Children are greatly impacted by how their role-models -parents and teachers amongst others- react and if they notice that their question is met by embarrassment or a unwillingness to be answered, they might interpret the subject of their questions as something that is to be distrusted or feared, eventually leading to prejudice (Williams, n.d.; Gidinski, 2019). An easy-to-read and clear publication on how to talk to children and adolescents to instil tolerance can be found here.

Why Support Matters

When discussing gender in the classroom, be aware of comments that could possibly be hurtful to others in both your own speech as in that of the students. Using gender stereotypes is so ingrained in our colloquial language that we often fail to notice it, but students who are gender non-conforming or who are figuring out their own identity will notice it (Lee, 2019). Small remarks such as commenting on a t-shirt a student wears or asking students to line up according to their gender can have a negative impact on some.

From: https://twitter.com/dr_krystal/status/1328830004923224065

Studies have shown that gender non-conforming students have heightened levels of anxiety, school avoidance, depression or of being bullied (Lee, 2019; Meyer, Quantz, Taylor & Peter, 2019; Pettway, 2016). Student wellbeing is, or should be, a priority for any teacher, and special attention needs to be made for those who can be perceived to be extra vulnerable. Even when it might not be clear if one of your students identifies with a non-traditional gender identity, the language, lesson content and resources used in the classroom need to be welcoming to all.

Having conversations about gender identity with the whole class group facilitates a shift in the classroom environment and stresses the importance of being accepting of diversity. Sometimes the situation will ask for a private conversation with a student or a small group, especially if this is the request of a student or if it regards bullying. However, studies (Brochin, 2019) have shown that teachers were more likely to address all LGBTQI+ support on an individual basis and only when the situation necessitated it. This could lead to creating the impression that conversations relating gender identity are not acceptable in a wider group and that it is something that should not be shared with others. It also places the responsibility of the situation with a single student, without leaving the chance for sharing it with peers. By proactively including it in the curriculum, acceptance could be promoted, and students will experience a classroom climate that is open for personal stories to be shared.


These websites can help you learn more and/or diversify your materials and lessons:


A common argument against teaching primary aged children about gender identity and the LGBTQI+ community is that they are too young or that the content is not age-appropriate (Meyer et al., 2019; Pettway, 2016). Teachers seem to share these worries, and studies have found that less than half of lower primary educators were comfortable including these topics in their lessons, and that these numbers only grew slightly for higher primary educators (Meyer et al., 2019). However, Amer (2019) mentions that children as young as four can already have a good understanding of their own gender identity. More importantly, a jury verdict ruling in favour of using picture books portraying non-traditional families in a kindergarten classroom advocated that “tolerance is always age-appropriate” (McLachlin in Meyer et al., 2019, p. 14). It is natural that as educators, we constantly question our lesson content and delivery, but this should not prevent us from including these sensitive, yet crucial conversations, rather we should accept this discomfort and use it as a reminder to remain critical and reflective of our own practices (Staley & Leonardi, 2019). The misconception here is that including gender identity in the classroom does not necessitate discussing sexual behaviours, but rather implies looking at family diversity, gender stereotypes and language concerning the LGBTQI+ community.


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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