Gender Across the Grades


Children can very often express "atypical" gender behavior as early as age two or three. This includes a range of behaviors — such as boys playing with dolls or wearing dresses, or girls who adopt boy's names — as well as children who more consistently assert a cross-gendered identity. Increasingly, teachers are discovering that they are caring for children who don't conform to traditional gender norms. Even in these early years, children have already begun to learn from both adults and peers the “gender” of certain toys or clothes, and to police others accordingly.

Many gender nonconforming or transgender children at this age are grappling with the necessary language to express their own sense of self. Openly or to themselves, these children are thinking or saying things such as “I want to be a girl when I grow up,”  “I wish I was a boy”  “God made a mistake,” “when will I get a penis,” or “my heart is a girl but my body is a boy. While some parents are trying to ascertain whether they have a gender variant or transgender child, others may be unaware of their child’s gender nonconformity.

In many cases, families will approach the pre-school educator for reassurance, information, and suggestions about how to respond to the child’s characteristics of gender. In fact, this may be the first adult outside of the home with whom the topic is raised. It is important for pre-school teachers and leaders to have a firm understanding of gender development, knowledge of the stages of parental understanding, and examples of other children and families with whom they have worked. The degree to which the pre-school can help families understand gender as a spectrum, and present positive pathways regardless of the child’s ultimate gender identity, will have a significant impact on the health and well being of the family and the child.

Elementary School

Gender variance is common in individuals of all ages, but gender non-conforming behavior in preadolescents is particularly visible. Some gender variant children may be open and comfortable in expressing themselves. However, most of them are already aware that they do not fit expected gender norms. They may experience negative repercussions at school, and become shy and withdrawn in an attempt to protect themselves from bullying by their peers. Others may exhibit behavioral problems.

Some children may have support at home, while others are severely punished for their natural self-expression. Additionally, the lack of support and understanding from teachers, parents, and other adults exacerbates the already difficult environment created by their peers. Even well intentioned parents sometimes feel they can better protect their child by insisting on gender-conforming behavior at school in an effort to optimize their child's school experience.

Understanding how to supportively address gender identity and expression within the elementary classroom and school is crucial to helping children thrive. This includes developmentally appropriate, explicit lessons on the complexity of gender and the many ways children express it. From the Kindergarten class onward, schools must emphasize the fundamental right for all children to simply be themselves. As children move through the grades, attention to gender issues creates safe spaces not only for the transgender or gender variant child, but also for all children to explore their full sense of self. Finally, the ability to provide parents with a developmental perspective of gender development in children is also an important characteristic at the elementary school level. This includes building parents’ capacity to help their own child to understand and celebrate gender diversity, as well as foreshadowing possible challenges related to gender as the students move towards middle school.

Middle School

Middle school Development and consolidation of a core identity marks the transition from child to adolescent. During this period, some young people often display gender variance or, increasingly, identify as transgender. This can be true for both children who have in some way demonstrated gender variance previously, as well as for a child who has not. Unfortunately, this also coincides with a time of intense peer pressure for social conformity. This pressure to conform puts gender variant adolescents at significantly greater risk, physically and emotionally. Advocates and many providers who work with transgender youth report that these young people are at very high risk for suicide.

While many adolescents present moody and even depressed dispositions during this period, gender nonconforming and transgender children are subject to even greater vacillations than their gender normative peers. In the highly pressurized atmosphere of most middle schools, discomfort frequently marks the gender nonconforming child’s experiences: discomfort with the social environment, discomfort with their own bodies, discomfort at home. At an age when a child most desperately wants to fit in, gender variant adolescents generally do not, and if they do, are terrified of being “found out.” Learning how to recognize a child at risk is a critical component in for any middle school staff.

Middle schools play a crucial role in fostering the conditions in which gender diversity is accepted or not. Through strategic and deliberate steps, schools can create truly gender inclusive climates for all students. One fundamental way middle schools can support such an environment is to critically explore gender stereotypes and the social pressures they produce, as well as distinguishing between gender identity and sexual orientation. Other middle-grade considerations include navigating gender-specific spaces, such as sports, bathrooms, and school forms; accommodating name and pronoun preferences; and recognizing basic civil and legal rights for gender variant and transgender students.

High School

As students move from the middle grades to high school, they begin solidifying what will become their adult gender identity. With the pressure to conform to narrow gender presentation and roles beginning to ebb, high school is frequently a period in which a transgender identity or gender variant self-expression may emerge. As they begin to rely less exclusively on gender scripts and look to the behavior of models consistent with internal gender identity, gender nonconforming high school students are actively seeking out and identifying allies and peer support.

Along with developing a baseline understanding of the complexity of gender examined in earlier grades, students in high school are also encouraged to explore them in the context of their own school. In so doing, they become acutely aware of how these concepts are playing out around them. This self-reflection as members of the school community is crucial, because it then places the students as central actors in the process of interrupting the negative patterns pertaining to gender that they perceive in their midst.  

As such, a primary purpose of the high school curriculum is to systematically develop the notions of advocacy and activism. On the brink of adulthood, high school students will develop their capacity to actively create the conditions for more accepting and inclusive cultures at their schools. Further, they will be supported to potentially work with younger students, both at their own sites as well as in the middle and elementary school levels. While the work places gender at the center of its focus, these skills to serve as allies for others across multiple forms of difference will continue as the students transition into post-secondary life, creating the possibility for ever more inclusive communities.

For more info, also see our book, The Transgender Child.

© 2014 Gender Spectrum. All rights reserved.