Supporting Gender Expansive Young Children’s Mental Health in Schools
May 28, 2022 | Ruth Freeman
By: Colleen K. Vesely, Ph.D.
May is Mental Health Awareness month! Check out this wonderful resource from The Trevor Project focused on creating safer spaces in schools for LGBTQ youth. For more information on creating emotionally and physically safe schools for LGBTQ children and youth, also visit Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and The Gay Straight Alliance Network.
The amazing work of The Trevor Project, GLSEN and The Gay Straight Alliance Network focuses on children and youth across K-12 school spaces. However, within schools there still seems to be limited focus on younger gender expansive children. It is equally important to consider how we can ensure emotionally safe schools for early childhood and elementary aged gender expansive children. These children are not too young to be gender expansive nor are they shielded from discrimination, daily microaggressions and micro exclusions.
Below are ideas and resources for school leaders, parents, families, and community members to consider as they support young gender expansive children’s mental health. KK and I developed these together based on her experiences and mine navigating gender expansiveness in schools.
School leaders and teachers ought to consider the following to make their classrooms and schools emotionally safe for their gender expansive students:
- Create opportunities in school for children to introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns. This practice can be as simple as, encouraging children as they introduce themselves throughout the school year to also share their preferred pronouns. Children’s pronouns can be added to their name cards displayed on their desks. While KK’s classmates and regular classroom teachers know her pronouns, substitute teachers and other classroom guests often do not. Having to navigate correcting adults (and children) who misgender in school can be exhausting and demoralizing for children. As a side note, it is now commonplace in many “adult” spaces (including university classrooms) for individuals to introduce themselves with their chosen name and their pronouns.
- Critically reflect on and change classroom practices to be gender inclusive. This practice may include everyday directives like, “Girls go get your lunches and boys go get your lunches.” Instead, use inclusive language like, “Children wearing blue, you may go get your lunches, children wearing long sleeves you may go get your lunches,” etc. Sometimes gender exclusivity is more deeply engrained into class activities and assignments. For example, when KK was in a younger grade, the children were directed to make gingerbread people (I won’t get into my cultural sensitivity issues with these activities, that’s for another blog!). The teacher specifically asked “Girls to put the gingerbread person’s bows on their heads, and boys to put them on their necks.” KK challenged the teacher because she wanted to put the bow on the gingerbread person’s neck. KK’s teacher continued to stress the directions she had already given. This interaction was probably a minor issue to the teacher, but this brief interaction made KK question herself and how she belongs in the world. And that gingerbread person came home from school with its bow ripped off of its head, and at home KK taped it onto the neck.
- Examine classroom literature and books for gender inclusion. Review texts in your classroom (and school administrators, in the school library) for the overt and covert messages being sent to children about how they should express their gender. See here for a list of gender inclusive books that provide support for discussing pronouns, gender expression, and gender identity with children.
- School administrators ought to provide opportunities for children and families to adjust their/their children’s pronouns and chosen names in the school database. As teachers receive a new class list each year, they could also receive children’s pronouns. Administrators can encourage teachers to not only review students’ names but also their pronouns to prevent misgendering. KK has been misgendered a number of times by teachers and staff, inclusive of health room staff. Having access to and being in the habit of checking this updated database would help ameliorate accidental misgendering. Opportunities to update preferred pronouns and names in school databases is something that is happening in higher education, which could be modeled in primary grades.
- Enable children to pick a buddy to accompany them to the bathroom. This practice is particularly important for gender expansive children who may be questioned about their gender by other children in the bathroom. Having a buddy, who is also a friend, can help a gender expansive child stand up for themselves. Or their friend can help correct the other child’s misgendering. KK’s besties have been extremely important to her navigating misgendering by other children, especially when other children argue with her about her gender. KK is grateful when her friends correct others about her gender, particularly when she is too tired or frustrated to do so herself.
- Allow children to bring a small fidget or stuffed animal into the classroom as these can service as security objects. These objects may be particularly helpful for children who may experience misgendering or feelings of not belonging related to their gender expansiveness. These objects can serve as reminders of their home or any other space where they feel affirmed. KK noted that this was particularly important for her in the beginning of each school year as she contended with more microaggressions and microexclusions regarding her gender expression.
- Maintain open lines of communication with families. This is important for all children and families; however, for children who are gender expansive and who may experience greater challenges to their emotional well-being, given what they are up against in our gender binary society, this partnership between school staff, teachers, and families is essential. It was helpful to hear from KK’s teacher this year when she wrote a story about a child who was consistently misgendered by a particular adult, and in the story, the adult was sentenced to jail for continuing to purposefully misgender the child in the story. It wasn’t until KK’s teacher nudged me via email to ask KK about her story that I knew what she had written. Her nudge helped me dig into a conversation with KK about how angry it makes her when people misgender her. I was then able to share this with KK’s therapist who could work through this further with KK.
- With permission share children’s work that may help other children understand a gender expansive child’s experience. KK noted that she wished her teacher had shared her story about the child being misgendered with her classmates so they could know how she feels when people call her by the wrong pronoun over and over again.
- Believe your students and know that experiencing the microaggression and micro exclusion of being misgendered IS a big deal. Please take this seriously, share with the child’s parents/family, and recognize how these experiences may be impacting the child’s other work and experiences in school.
Ally parents, families, neighbors, communities ought to consider the following to help ensure gender expansive children are emotionally safe in schools and in the community:
- Talk with your children about gender expansiveness. This practice/conversation can help children to ensure they are using their classmates’ preferred pronouns. Books can be a wonderful way to start this conversation. There are a list of recommended books on our resources page, as well as here.
- Remind your children to not assume someone’s gender or pronouns. Help your children with language for asking other children what their pronouns are. Hi, my name is KK and I use she/her pronouns, what is your name and what pronouns do you prefer? Or, do you like people to call you she, he, they or something else? Never call a person “it”. Also remind your children that mistakes happen—if they accidentally misgender someone, apologize or acknowledge, and move on. Do . not . argue with someone about their gender—they know themselves better than anyone.
- Encourage your children to introduce themselves in school and other settings with their preferred pronouns. Using preferred pronouns should not just be the work of gender expansive children; rather as we raise children to be allies, it is important for them to also engage in sharing their preferred pronouns. A cisgender child leading in this way might just make it easier for a gender expansive kiddo to share pronouns knowing they belong. This can be done with simple verbal introductions, or with name cards, or at events where stick on name tags are being used, encourage your child to write their name and their pronouns.
- Encourage Support your children in standing up for their gender expansive friends. This is especially important in situations when a teacher may not be present to mediate. While KK is quite skilled at standing up for herself, she is always grateful (as am I) for her besties who step in whenever someone questions her gender. This support has been especially helpful when there have been children, and in one case with my son, a teacher, who argue about KK’s gender.
- Do not question someone’s choice of bathroom. As you work with your child to understand gender expansiveness please assure them that people know how to find the bathroom that reflects their gender. Your child may think they are being helpful by telling a child they are in the wrong bathroom. These helpful children confronted my KK several times last spring when we returned to in-person school and again this fall, and every time it left KK feeling as though she did not belong, that she did not fit in, and that there was something wrong with her. These feelings were especially true when some of these children argued with her about her gender and where she belonged.
Parents of gender expansive children, I know how much emotional and physical work you are doing to affirm your beautiful kiddos. It is my hope that the above tips for school staff and ally parents and their children will help alleviate some of this burden from your shoulders. In the meantime here are some of my thoughts related to supporting your gender expansive children’s mental health within schools. Please share your ideas too, and I will add them here anonymously or with your name (with your permission)!
- Maintain open lines of communication with your child about what is happening in school. Check in daily with your child about their experiences regarding school. KK and I use a simple check in of thumbs up, down, or in the middle. If KK has a thumbs down, I know something has happened and I dig deeper. Sometimes this is related to her gender expression and sometimes it is something totally different. I continue to work with KK to know she can tell me anything without concern for getting in trouble. Recently, KK was misgendered while also breaking a school rule. She told me a fabricated story that involved another child misgendering her. Because her teacher and I have open and strong communication I received an email from her teacher noting that KK had been misgendered by another teacher at recess (as KK was trying to hop over the playground fence to join her friends on the field). The teacher kept calling her “young man” to which KK did not respond. This teacher did not know KK because this was the first time the kids were allowed to mix during recess as COVID restrictions were lifted. When I asked KK about what I heard from her teacher, she indicated that what her teacher wrote was the truth. KK told me that she lied because she didn’t want to get in trouble for hopping the fence and because she didn’t want the teacher to get in trouble. I asked her specifically about the latter—her concern about the teacher getting in trouble—and wondered if she would prefer that I check with her before emailing the school about anything related to her being misgendered. In my mama bear haste, this step is sometimes hard for me.
- Encourage your child to share some of their favorite books focused on gender with their classroom teacher and other school staff. Teachers and schools sometimes need support selecting texts that would be most supportive of understanding your gender expansive child. When KK was in 1st grade, she had an extremely affirming teacher who provided several formal and informal opportunities for children to bring books into school to share with the class. On one of these occasions KK brought in the book A House for Everyone, which provides language regarding gender expansiveness. During this read aloud KK was able to share with her classmates that she liked the book because the character Ivy was just like her. KK felt like this book helped her classmates understand her experiences better. Earlier this year, after many conversations with the school principal as KK experienced being misgendered a lot last spring and this fall, KK suggested that the principal read the picture book I am Jazz to the entire school over the loudspeaker after the morning annoucements. And that is just what her principal did! This was such an important and affirming moment for KK.
- Connect with your child’s school counselor. School counselors are amazing resources of support for children and families, and can provide important sources of connection and affirmation for gender expansive children. KK received wonderful support from the two school counselors in her school through individual lunch meetings as well as groups with other children. KK also felt safe going to either school counselor when she was misgendered in case she did not feel comfortable talking with her classroom teacher about her experience.
- Help your child engage in activities they enjoy and feel successful at because this will help them feel more confident and know they belong. KK shared with me the importance of being a part of activities that she is really good at because it helps boost her self-esteem. KK noted that when she can accomplish things that other kids can accomplish this helps her feel like she belongs and fits in.
- Consider how pets can help support your child’s emotional needs. Furry friends offer unconditional love and acceptance, which can really help gender expansive children who receive implicit and explicit message that they are not accepted. We recently adopted a sweet lab mix named Puma. KK is an animal lover and had been asking me for years to adopt a dog. Now that our youngest is five, we agreed to having a fur baby. My dog-loving sister helped us find the perfect dog for our family and KK. KK told me that Puma’s unconditional love always makes her feel like she belongs. She also shared that when she is feeling upset, snuggling with Puma helps her calm down. And, KK even noted the importance of the physical activity that she gets by playing with and walking Puma and how this exercise helps her mental health. She assures me that cats will provide the same rewards! (KK, we are not getting a cat.)
- Maintain open lines of communication with your child’s teacher and school. This is important whether your child is gender expansive or not. For gender expansive children the partnership between teachers and families can ensure that there are multiple adults acutely observing your child’s emotional well-being. Each year, during the first week of school I send a brief email to introduce myself and provide some detailed background information on my child (I do this for each of my three children) to help the teacher connect and build rapport with my child. I also schedule a quick informal check-in with my children’s teachers about one month into school to continue to build this relationship.
- Find a good mental health therapist for your child. A therapist can provide expert support for your gender expansive child and you as you both navigate this gender binary world. Be sure that the therapist you choose has experience working with gender expansive children. Sometimes you can find a therapist that aligns with your child’s other interests. For example, KK sees an art therapist who really taps into KK’s creativity and love of making while also supporting KK in working through all that she is feeling and navigating as an 8-year-old. It was important to KK’s father and I that she have a trusting therapeutic relationship established prior to puberty given all that happens in terms of identity development during adolescence. If you are seeking a therapist for your child, we have had success with Psychology Today. You can also connect with the Mental Health Association, a national organization that has local chapters across the US and can provide you with many resources. You can also check with your child’s school counselor for lists of therapists, as well as your local social services and human services departments. The most important piece is for you to meet the therapist first to gauge whether the therapist is a good fit for your child and your family.
Colleen K. Vesely, Ph.D., is an associate professor of early childhood education and human development and family science in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. She considers motherhood to be the most humbling experience of her life as she raises three amazing humans, Luka (age 11), Katja (age 9), and Isak (age 5). Find out more about her blogs at https://www.raisingunicorns.org/
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