While working proactively to be more gender-inclusive benefits all students, for many school leaders and educators, this work begins with supporting a transgender or gender expansive child at your school.
Creating Gender Support Plans
More than any other resource, Gender Support Plans (GSPs) have allowed schools across the United States and beyond to thoughtfully address the specific needs of transgender and nonbinary students. GSPs leverage the positive spaces established through gender inclusive practices. Their purpose is to create shared understandings about the ways in which the student’s authentic gender will be accounted for and supported at school. Rather than a moment of crisis, a gender-expansive student’s enrollment or emergence will affirm the truly gender-inclusive climate a school has worked so hard to create. Through the use of a Gender Support Plan, what can feel like a daunting task becomes a series of individual decisions and practices grounded in common sense approaches educators employ every day.
Each student’s GSP will be unique, informed by the student’s individual’s needs, community, family situation and personality. What all GSPs share in common is an intentional and transparent process for systematically addressing the various areas that can otherwise negatively impact the student’s experience at school. While a GSP is most effective in a setting that is proactively designed around gender inclusive principles, their lack does not preclude the use of a GSP. In fact, the absence of such conditions makes a carefully crafted plan essential for the student’s safety, well-being and success at school.
Learn more about using the Gender Support Plan.
The School/Home Partnership
When students, schools and caring adults collaborate, the impact is profound. Whenever possible, they should work together to identify the specific ways in which the institution will account for the student’s gender-related needs. Ideally, each will spend time completing the various sections of the GSP to the best of their ability and then come together to review sections and confirm shared agreements for implementing the plan.
Establishing this collaborative relationship is not always easy. For some families of gender-expansive students, experiences with schools have been challenging, and in some cases combative. Often facing systems unprepared or unwilling to meet their child’s needs, parents may approach their child’s school ready to do battle. It is critical that educators are especially focused on building trust with the family, acknowledging their fears and articulating your commitment to ensuring their child’s well-being. By genuinely demonstrating that their gender-expansive child is a welcome addition to your community, schools position themselves to establish an authentic partnership with families. The Framework for Inclusive Schools describes a number of tangible steps schools can take to demonstrate this welcoming stance. In so doing, you are setting up a relationship grounded in a common cause: the child’s successful experience at your school.
Practical tips for creating a healthy school/home partnership can be found in our Initial School Meeting, a simple agenda for establishing this critical relationship.
It may also be the case that the school is observing things about a child’s gender that the family is not seeing at home. It is not uncommon for a child to “try on” a more expansive presentation or identity on campus – through clothing, choice of friends, preferred activities, and/or in their writing or artwork – than they might demonstrate at home. In these situations, the school may be getting an indication of the child’s evolving gender before the family is even aware of it (or perhaps willing to acknowledge).
In such situations, you may consider sharing your observations with the family in an objective and supportive way. It is quite likely that the student hasn’t been asserting or presenting their gender at home for fear of rejection or worse. Therefore, before informing a family about your observations, it is critical to get the student’s permission to do so. Even once given, bringing up their gender-expansiveness may well be a very sensitive interaction, and should be handled in a manner that invites dialogue with the family. By sharing your concrete examples of the student’s actions and words, rather than your interpretation of what these might mean, you can engage the child’s parents and caregivers in an open conversation about what you are observing. Rather than declaring what a child’s gender expression means, aim to enlist the family as partners in a shared effort to understand what, if anything, the child is saying about who they are.
Finally, a note of caution as you seek to partner with the families of your gender expansive students. You may be worried about the larger parent or community reaction to a visible shift in a student’s gender or to learning a transgender or otherwise gender expansive student is a part of your school community. It is essential that these concerns do not frame your conversation in your initial interactions with the child’s family. Hearing about the school’s need to “balance your child’s needs with those of the other families and children” will most often signify to the child’s family, “Here we go again—yet another school where my child is not safe.”
This is not to say that you do not need to be responsive to community-based questions and concerns, or that eventually you may need to communicate and strategize with the family about them. It simply means that a family needs to see evidence of your sincere commitment to working to support their child at the outset of your interactions, and that this commitment is not going to be compromised in the process.
Youth in Non-Affirming Homes
Sadly, some gender expansive students lack support for their gender at home, and may in fact be living in an environment that is openly hostile or even dangerous. This does not mean a school is precluded from providing an affirming environment on campus. In fact, doing so may be life-saving for the student. Though requiring sensitivity and caution, schools can successfully navigate this challenging situation.
Not surprisingly, the use of a Gender Support Plan will once again be critical. But in this case, the plan will be one developed between the school and student. In some cases, students will approach school staff seeking support, perhaps in the form of a request to use the name and pronoun by which they wish to be referred. In other cases, staff may observe something that signals the student is grappling with their gender. This might be a shift in their gender presentation, a comment in class or a reference by another student indicating a shift in the young person’s understanding of their gender. Regardless of the cause, when school staff become aware of a student’s gender being “on the table,” it can be an appropriate time to respectfully raise the issue with the student and determine if they are looking for any support from the school. See more in "Privacy and Unsupportive Caregivers" in our article on "Schools and Privacy Issues."
This interaction can take any number of forms. A simple observation might suffice: “Hey I noticed that your friends are calling you by a different name. Would you like me to start doing so as well? By the way, if there are any other things I can do that might help you feel more comfortable, definitely let me know!” Don’t be surprised if the student does not immediately share their entire gender journey with you right on the spot, or even if they appear dismissive; you have just opened a door of acknowledgment that they may well walk through down the line. Maybe the student will test the waters by inquiring about a “what if” scenario, or a friend might come to you on their behalf.
Whatever the context, it is important to know in advance what you should (and should not) do with this information. It may feel natural to seek input from a colleague. Though well-intentioned, it is imperative that before you share anything with another person, you seek the student’s permission. If worried about a lack of support from home, they may be wary of any grown-ups discussing the matter. Even if they do have support at home, their gender may well be something they are trying to navigate privately. Of course, you may also not feel equipped to support the student. If so, let the student know that this is an area with which you are unfamiliar, and that you would like to seek advice from or refer them to another adult with more experience. At the same time, don’t sell yourself short; especially if they’ve approached you directly, you have indicated that you are a safe person. Letting the student know that you may not have all the answers but will be there to help them figure things out sends a powerful message, especially when they lack support at home.
This of course raises a number of concerns for many school leaders. In the absence of caregiver approval, the school may believe that they are unable to take steps that nonetheless honor the child’s gender on campus.
Another critical aspect of this situation is a very frank conversation with the student about a number of issues. First of all, the school’s commitment to their privacy does not guarantee that adults at home will not find out. Whether through word-of-mouth, some technical glitch or the inadvertent use of the student’s name while communicating with the home, the GSP must take into consideration what contingencies will be in place should the student’s privacy be or appear to be compromised.
Beyond these practical challenges of honoring the child’ gender at school despite lack of support at home, there is a more fundamental discussion that must also take place with the student. The research is abundantly clear about the impact that caregiver affirmation can have on the ultimate well-being of gender-expansive youth. While the school must take very seriously the student’s assertion of the situation at home, they can also hold a longer term vision of what it might look like for the caregivers to move towards a more accepting place.
We have barely scratched the surface of the various considerations that must be accounted for when approached by a gender-expansive student lacking support at home. One of the most complicated dynamics that an educator can face, there are nonetheless a great many ways that the school can provide what may be life-saving support. Our professional development and training for educators can be invaluable in helping you navigate these issues. Learn more about your options for training.
Communicating a Change in Gender Status
When a student seeks gender congruence in a way that is new (or at least new at school), it marks a milestone in that young person’s development. Handled well, it can be a profound experience for the young person, as well as for the entire school community. Be it through their outward appearance, social interactions or assertion of a new term for their gender identity, the process is by definition public. As such, it is incumbent on the school to support the student to plan accordingly. A Gender Communication Plan can be a useful tool for doing so.
Typically, this process will include things such as changes in a student’s name or pronouns, a gender expression that is more aligned with their identity, the use of facilities such as restrooms or changing rooms consistent with gender identity, participation in activities such as sports or after-school programs, and various ways of socially interacting with other students and adults.
There are a number of key considerations that must be accounted for when a student makes the decision to publicly share their authentic gender. Regardless of the specific circumstances, however, schools can maximize the potential for a successful experience through a carefully thought out GCP. While the GSP is designed to meet the student’s needs broadly, the GCP serves to craft the very specific moment or moments in which the student will explicitly share their changed status with the school community at large. In many ways, the GCP is like a lesson plan, in that it identifies an objective (the students sharing a change in their gender), and then “backwards mapping” in order to achieve it.
Responding to Concerns
It is incumbent on you to meet the needs of your transgender and other gender-expansive students, and doing so is well within your reach. It is also true that concerns may be raised by colleagues and community members along the way. Responding to these should not be an all-or-nothing, zero sum gamegain. Being able to respectfully address questions about your school’s commitment to the well-being of all students, without compromising any child’s privacy, is a critical aspect of gender inclusion.
So what does this look like in practice? School leaders from an array of contexts have discovered that answering these concerns is very much like handling any number of challenging inquiries you face on a daily basis, and that you can quickly become comfortable with just a little practice.
School leaders have found some or all of the following to be helpful strategies:
- Emphasizing your commitment and responsibility to the safety and well-being of all of your students, including their own child’s
- Demonstrating how the support of gender diverse youth is consistent with the school’s mission and values, and creates a better learning environment for all students
- Reminding them that you will not share any information about another child, just as you would never do so about their own child
- Reassuring them that the school has very specific approaches for meeting a wide range of student needs grounded in best practices and professional affirmation
- Connecting them to resources and information about gender and gender diversity
Know that the ideas above will most likely not result in some sort of epiphany on the part of the individual who has raised concerns in the first place. It may well be that they were never going to be open to any rationale you might provide. But in having a clear set of principles guiding your actions, you can demonstrate the professionalism and intentionality that is at the heart of being a gender inclusive educator, and that includes supporting the needs of the transgender and gender-expansive students you are, or most certainly will be, encountering. For more, see our Introduction to Creating Gender Inclusive Schools.