In our webinar, Professor Mara Sapon-Shevin (Syracuse University, USA) discussed how early childhood teachers can challenge the prevalent and often unquestioned gender-based assumptions present in society, as well as how they might approach gender non-conformity. The webinar provided practical advice for teachers on what to say when children say things like ‘girls can’t be doctors’ as well as providing ideas for books and music that can be used to address gender stereotypes and teach children about gender diversity.
The key ideas from the webinar include:
In modern society, every choice, including what children wear, what children play with, and how children interact with others, is gendered and becomes loaded: either a choice is appropriate for their gender, or it is not, and is perceived as a problem. Stereotypes relate to the colours children use or like, the activities they enjoy, and the behaviours they engage in. Boys might be seen as typically aggressive, while girls are seen to like quiet activities and be good at arts and crafts. Babies can be gendered even before they are born, once families find out the baby’s sex. Shops are organised with girls’ and boys’ clothing sections, and girls’ and boys’ toys. There may also be an expectation that boys should not display emotion, which hampers their emotional development. Highly problematic are the ways that girls and boys are not expected to have friends of the opposite sex, and if they do, they may be teased about this friend being a ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ (sexualising the relationship). Gender expression can be quite fluid, and just because a child chooses to express themselves in one way now does not mean that they have to remain with that gender identity for the rest of their lives.
When children do not behave in accordance with gender-specific norms, they may feel as if adults and peers are trying to change, fix, or correct them. This leads to children feeling they are ‘wrong’ and ‘different’, and to internalised guilt and shame. Children who demonstrate behaviours and preferences that do not conform with normative stereotypes are often called names, such as ‘tomboy’ (for a girl who displays characteristics usually associated with boys), and ‘sissy’ (for a boy who displays characteristics usually associated with girls). It is important to note that these are not equally weighted words, as being a tomboy is usually seen as more acceptable than being a boy with stereotypically feminine characteristics. This illustrates how notions of gender performance are connected to ideas of heterosexism. Self-harm and suicide rates are higher among children who are gender non-conforming.
Anti-bias education is important in the context of gender diversity. It is not enough for teachers to be accepting of and open towards diverse gender identities, but, because normative stereotypes are so enmeshed in every aspect of society, teachers need to engage in proactive work to undo them. Teachers need to address and challenge stereotypes directly; remaining silent means they are reinforcing the status quo. The aim should be for teachers’ practices to be gender-expansive, nor gender-neutral.
Ideas about gender diversity are best presented very neutrally, without undue emphasis, much as we would talk about any differences between people (wearing glasses, for example). Teachers might say ‘Yes, Matthew’s got two mums, Justin lives with his dad and his mum lives across the country’. Children usually embrace gender differences, ideas about trans-gender identities, and the shift in pronouns readily when these are positively modelled. Most resistance comes from adults, with young children usually demonstrating very little resistance. However, children are very perceptive, watching adults carefully and observing their responses to different performances of gender, and this can be a powerful source of gender stereotypical ideas.
Children’s music and literature can be helpful in addressing stereotypes and providing positive models. These should be used in much the same way as other music and literature, rather than in a didactic way. Books are moving towards non-didactic styles of inclusion (featuring a trans-gender child in a story which is not about trans-gendered identities, rather than explicitly teaching about trans-gendered identities). This is important in normalising a range of gender identities. Teachers might look at the way that traditional literature, music, and games reify gender stereotypes, such as the song/game The Farmer’s in the Den (the farmer has to take a wife). They might seek ways to introduce non-normative behaviours for girls and boys, such as bringing in a doctor or construction worker who is female.
Teachers should respond to children’s comments and questions that reflect normative assumptions in a way that isn’t punitive, as this will just shut the conversation down. They should also provide a response that does not reify existing stereotypes, such as ‘John can wear girls’ clothes if he wants to’, which, while positive, implies that there is a category of clothes that is gendered female. It is better to model ideas such as ‘John is wearing clothes that he likes to wear’, and ‘yes, how fabulous are the colours in that skirt’, as well as to question and challenge children’s assumptions: ‘Why might people think some clothes are only for girls?’ Teachers might encourage children to explore a range of dress-ups by asking: ‘Are there clothes in the dress up corner you’ve always wanted to try?’
Families of children may not always be comfortable with teachers’ support for a range of gender identities. Teachers may find it helpful to have a specific policy on their approach to teaching about diversity, and explain opportunities to explore diverse gender identities from this perspective.
There are many useful resources to support teachers to learn about the experiences and preferences of those who identify as trans-gender and non-binary, or who are gender non-conforming (see our list below). Finding out about and using people’s preferences for pronouns is important. ‘They’ can be used to replace ‘he/she’ and can make using language much simpler. Teachers should learn as much as they can but accept that they are likely to make mistakes at first. It is best to apologise and move on quickly if a mistake is made, without making a big deal out of it.
Teachers can feel encouraged and hopeful. Understanding that every small step towards dismantling oppression and stereotypes is a step, and that no one can do it all, can help reduce feelings of overwhelm. Not to do anything, however, reinforces dominant stereotypes and injustices for people who are non-conforming. Modelling is extremely powerful. Teachers can also look at ways in which to support children’s tendencies to be caring, loving, tender, and supportive of each other, and strengthen these dispositions in children.
Some Girls by Nelly Thomas and Some Boys by Nelly Thomas both examine the range of activities that girls and boys can enjoy, with the intention of decoupling activities from their usual gender stereotypes.
What are your Words? A Book about Pronouns by Katherine Locke. This book looks at the use of pronouns.
Websites with good curriculum: