Many parents have had the experience of taking their child to a class that felt very biased toward girls or toward boys. (Read about my experience in my son’s dance class.) Some parents and kids stick it out even when all the messages say “you don’t belong here.” But many will drop out, looking for somewhere that they feel like they belong. What can teachers and administrators do to welcome all genders?
First, I want to clarify why I’m saying “all genders” rather than “both genders.” In your classes, the majority of your kids may be either girl-bodied-who-identify-as-girls or boy-bodied-who-identify-as-boys. But, you may also have transgender or gender queer children who don’t quite fit those straightforward binary definitions. Some of those kids won’t figure this out till adulthood, but some have the sense from very early in life that their assigned gender doesn’t fit. They and their families are already having a hard time sorting that out. If they go to a very gendered environment, it makes it even harder to know how they fit in and creates more gender dysphoria. If they are in a more gender neutral, gender inclusive environment, it’s easier for them to feel like the person they are is welcome there.
Let’s examine some of the ways we can help.
How do you encourage all genders to enroll in your program? Think about:
- Your class name: If you name your class “toddlers and tutus”, that pretty much implies it’s a girls-only class. If that’s what you intend, that’s fine. Say so. But if you’d like boys to enroll, think about a name change!
- The words in your marketing: Whether it’s on brochures, posters, website, or social media, when you describe your program, do you talk about boys and girls and state that all are welcome?
- The pictures in your marketing: Are there boys and girls? Boys and girls doing things together? If your photos show only girls playing dress-up and only boys climbing on play equipment, it’s easy to infer a gender bias.
How do you make your space welcoming to all genders? Think about:
- The environment of your classroom: do pictures show both boys and girls doing a wide variety of activities? Are the colors gender neutral or diverse, or is it all pink ribbons or blue cars? Do you cluster all the “boy activities” in one area, and the “girl activities” in another area. (Cars and blocks here, kitchen and dress-up there.)
- Your bathrooms: If you have single occupant bathrooms, please don’t label them as a boy bathroom and a girl bathroom. Make them both accessible to anyone.
How do you greet children and families into your classes? Think about:
- The words you use when talking to parents: I prefer saying “kids” or “children” which includes everyone. If you want to say “sons” then also say “daughters.” If you say “girls” also say “boys.”
- The words you use talking to the children: Instead of calling over the “boys and girls” for an activity, can you call them “kids”? Or even better: “dancers” or “artists” or “inventors” or “everyone ready to play some soccer”? Not only is it gender inclusive, it allows them to take on the identity of a dancer or an artist and so on.
- The way you react when a person of the less expected gender joins your program: Definitely welcome the person just as you welcome all others. But DON’T go way overboard in welcoming them “Oh, it’s so wonderful to have a girl in this class. I really wish more girls would enroll. I’m so delighted to have a girl.”
- How do you define which gender a child is? Well, the more gender neutral your practice is, the less this matters. But, when you have to guess, it’s fair to go by name, apparent biological sex, and apparent gender presentation. (For example, if you see someone who looks like a biological male, whose name is John, and who’s wearing a Spiderman t-shirt, you can guess boy.) But, if the child or the child’s family tell you the child’s gender, then honor that, even if it’s different from your initial assumption. If John in the Spiderman shirt says “I’m a girl, please say she and her when talking about me”, then do so! You can also invite parents and children to let you know what name they prefer to use, and what pronouns they prefer.
How do you make sure that daily life in your classroom is inclusive? Pay attention to:
- The ways you divide up the group: Do you often go for the “boys on this side” and “girls on this side” way of splitting up the class for small group activities? Try mixing in “kids wearing white here” and “kids wearing blue” or “kids who like dogs best” and “kids who like cats best” and “kids who have birthdays in January through June” and “July through December.” Not only is this gender neutral, it also gets them mixing up a lot more and finding things they have in common with each other. (If we always groups divide into girls and boys, it can become an “us” and “them” mentality where the kids see the differences more than the similarities. We would NEVER divide kids up by race for a game, why is it seen as OK to divide them by gender?)
- The books you read: Do they show both boys and girls, men and women doing a variety of things? In our Family Inventors’ Lab, we try to make sure that we read books about girls inventing, and boys studying animals, and so on. We’ll talk about Thomas Edison and Marie Curie.
- Pay attention to labels: Use firefighter, not fireman. Flight attendant not stewardess.
- Minimize stereotyped gender roles: When a group of children is playing house, don’t assume one will be the mother and cook and care for the baby. If children make that assumption, that’s OK but you shouldn’t place that assumption on them. Try not to say “wow – this is a woman astronaut… isn’t it great that women can be astronauts too?” It implies that this is a special case, not an equal opportunity.
- Help soften their stereotypes. Around 2, children start defining things as “boy toys and girl toys“, around age 3 or 4, children start defining activities as “boys do this and girls do that” and around 4 to 6 they say “only boys can do this and only girls can do that.” (source) You can remind them that anyone can choose any toy or activity, according to their own personal interests. But, don’t get too distressed by this. Stereotypes and sweeping generalizations is one way that kids make sense of their world.
- Adjust your expectations of who will do each activity option: I confess that when I set up our classroom, in my head, I think “what’s my boy activity today.” By that, I really mean: I want to make sure I have an activity that will appeal to those kids who are full of physical energy and really need some big motor release. I need to come up with a new term for that, even in my own head. I’ve never said to anyone else “this is our boy activity” but I need to think of it in other terms myself to reduce bias.
- The way you react to the activities they choose: I still remember a coop preschool my middle child was in 14 years ago… one little boy in the class LOVED to dress up in pretty dresses and high heels and carry purses, and so on. Almost every parent volunteer who saw him do this tried to entice him either to choose different clothes (the firefighter helmet) or to choose a different activity (blocks or cars.) Although none of them said anything negative to him, there was definitely an undercurrent of “you shouldn’t do that.” In this case, the teacher gently modeled for all the parents that it was OK for the boy to do whatever activities he enjoyed.
- How do you handle emotions: Are you sympathetic to a girl’s cries, but tell a boy to stop crying? Are you shocked when a girl shows anger, but act as though it’s normal when a boy does? Do you place similar limits on their behavior or do you let boys get away with more, because “boys will be boys.” Do you congratulate both boys and girls for sitting still and paying attention?
- How you respond to bullying: If a child is being teased or bullied due to gender issues, be clear that it’s unacceptable in your classroom. But, don’t use this as a reason for punishment, instead use it as a reason to teach.
Check out this article on 6 ways to embrace gender differences and this one on 12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness. Also, read my summary of what the research shows on innate gender differences vs. cultural influence, and on how to support both boys and girls in developing their strengths. If you want to learn more about transgender people, here is a nice overview.
What other ideas do you have for welcoming all genders?