Celebrating every child's experience of gender

Attend Pre-Conference Workshop:
Creating Gender Inclusive Preschools

What is an early childhood educator to do when a new student, a bright-eyed boy, walks into the classroom wearing a dress and all he wants to do is play with dolls in the dress up corner? Or, one day another student, a girl, says she feels like a boy?

Such scenarios, once uncommon, are frequently occurring in preschool and primary classrooms across the country and world. Many educators, both new and veteran teachers, may be unprepared to respond. They may struggle negotiating their own ideas and values about gender and inclusivity with those of families.

Participants at the annual NMAEYC Pre-Conference and Conference will be able to discuss these issues and learn about other topics related to gender identity and expression at the 6-hour workshop titled Creating Gender Inclusive Preschools, presented by Joel Baum, Senior Director of Professional Development & Family Services for Gender Spectrum. The California Bay Area nonprofit provides trainings and resources to families, organizations, and schools about gender inclusivity. Baum will also facilitate two shorter workshops at Saturday’s conference.

Navigating Notions of Masculinity and Femininity

Baum said that children today are growing up in a very gender-diverse world. Children will definitely meet classmates, teachers, and other community members that do not fit traditional ideas of what men and women should look like and how they should act. All children, especially children who identify as transgender, will need support in navigating the many notions of masculinity and femininity in order to grow up to be happy and healthy adults.

Teachers, Baum said, need to be prepared to “create conditions that honor and celebrate every person’s experience of gender.” No one should be made to feel “less than” because of the activities they choose to do, the clothes they wear, the toys they play with, or for who they are, he said.

Creating welcoming spaces, though, may be difficult for teachers because “gender norms” are deeply ingrained in societal practices. Such sayings as “you throw like a girl” and “boys don’t cry” are taken for granted, but often have limiting psychological effects for both boys and girls.

The Role of the Teacher

Teachers have an influential opportunity to curb those effects, Baum said. Schools are powerful socializing institutions in children’s lives. The biggest lessons teachers can teach children are respect and kindness. It’s never okay to make someone feel ashamed or unsafe, and unable to learn in school, because of their particular beliefs, values, or gender expression. 

“Whatever the topic,” Baum said, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Being transparent about those key lessons can help educators support families in understanding why they and their schools promote certain inclusive teaching practices and create safe and welcoming environments for all children.

Gender inclusive teachers don’t separate children in the classroom, Baum said, sending half here and the other half there to play with certain toys. Such practices can send messages to children about expectations they should meet, and ultimately about power and privilege. These messages, unchecked, have long-lasting detrimental effects. The current #metoo movement, Baum surmises, can be linked to long-held assumptions about gender and behaviors associated with gender roles.

“We want all children to reach their full potential as human beings,” Baum said, and one way of achieving this is to begin to examine societal constructions of gender which can be limiting and are imposed on children early on.

Exploring the Gender Spectrum

The workshops will also explore other topics, as well, such as:

• Distinguishing a person’s gender identity from their sexual orientation.

• Identifying instructional resources, including lesson plans, student activities, handouts and other tools for working with students, parents and colleagues.

• Responding to community questions, thinking about restrooms, and other commonly asked questions.

Baum notes that each person’s comfort level with the topic of gender is unique and that’s ok. “It’s OK not to know,” he explains “but once you know, you can’t not know. Then you need to decide what you’re going to do about it.”

The workshops will create a safe space to explore just what that next step might be.

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