Exploring the Inclusion of Same-Sex Families in Early Years Settings
To celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month in June 2023, Portobello Institute is examining important issues centred around LGBTQ+ rights to raise awareness and understanding across the sectors in which we specialise.
One of those sectors is in the Early Years where Portobello Institute tutor Jacinta Murphy has carried out research.
In this article, we will share some important insights from her research paper entitled ‘An exploration of the experiences and perspectives of early year’s practitioners with regard to the inclusion of same-sex families within early year’s settings.’
Collaboration and connection with the parents and families of children attending an early years setting are important for a number of reasons.
Not only does a strong partnership with parents support the child’s transition from home to pre-school but it also helps the practitioner to understand the child’s background, home life, culture and interests.
Diversity in the early years classroom is also an increasingly important consideration for practitioners and setting owners.
Diversity recognises the differences between people and includes different factors, such as religion, political orientation, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, and family structure.
Diversity in the classroom involves celebrating those differences and creating a culture of inclusion and acceptance among children and their greater social community.
So, what happens when we combine those two things? How do early years practitioners and setting owners embrace the same collaboration, connection and inclusivity with same-sex parent families as they do with families with heterosexual parents?
In this article, we will examine the importance of inclusion and connection of LGBTQ+ families or families with same-sex parents in early years settings.
We will discuss some of the findings of Jacinta Murphy’s research and examine how practitioners and settings can implement inclusion.
The research explores the experiences and perspectives of early years practitioners on the inclusion of same-sex families in their settings.
The study investigates the attitudes and experiences of early childhood educators about the integration of same-sex families in settings.
This initiative examines the attitudes, regulations, instructional methods, and practices that help or hinder the inclusion of these families.
The entire research paper and all of the relevant references are linked at the end of this article in an eBook which you can download to read more in-depth.
The study's participants come from four different settings, including community and private, part-time and full-time, and they have a range of educational backgrounds and work experiences.
As the data is qualitative in nature no broad generalisations should be drawn from them. This blog article is an adaptation of the research paper.
The Context of Same-Sex Marriage and Families in Ireland
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Ireland since November 16, 2015, after a referendum on May 22 that year amended the Constitution to provide that marriage is recognised irrespective of the sex of the partners.
It was six years later in December 2021 when an EU court ruled that same-sex parents and their children must be recognised as a family in all member states including Ireland.
According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), in Ireland in 2021 there were 16,717 opposite-sex marriages in Ireland, 252 male same-sex marriages and 248 female same-sex marriages.
As growing numbers of people in the LGBTQ+ community have married in recent years, many have also started families, bringing an increasing need for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ parents and families in the early years setting and society overall.
The Constitution deems the parents as the child’s ‘primary educator’ and must be involved in their child’s education and care.
In agreement with this, early childhood education sectors governing documents, for example, Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework, Síolta: The National Quality Framework and Regulation 5 of the Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016 advocate ‘sensitive and supportive’ two-way communication to ensure a positive partnership approach between practitioners and all parents, vital to children’s learning and development.
Early years settings should acknowledge and partner with diverse families, ensuring that ‘policies and practices… positively reflect this’.
Through the qualitative research in this research project, it was found that practitioners in the settings interviewed saw themselves as having a diverse setting because they had children attending who had different backgrounds and cultures from different countries, a child who was deaf or a child with cerebral palsy.
This indicates that diversity-conscious provision can be more concerned with language, race and disability than sexual orientation or family status.
While some settings acknowledged a broader sense of family when talking about diversity, they mentioned things like single-parent families, blended families or unmarried partners and same-sex parents were rarely considered until the setting was faced with the experience of welcoming a child with lesbian parents firsthand which caused them to reconsider their policies, representation and inclusion.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) suggests that family diversity should be visible within settings, however, it’s important to note that even when visible, this alone doesn’t make the environment safe and welcoming for same-sex parents and families.
It was also found that while the language used in documentation and policies in early years settings commonly refer to parents or parents/carers within their handbook, the same cannot be said of the admission forms which often require the mother’s name/father’s name.
Hetronormative practices can render same-sex families invisible.
The NCCA suggest that family diversity should be visible within settings, however, only one setting in this research displayed a welcome poster which included same-sex families.
However Bishop, (2010, cited in Beren 2013:34) suggests that even when visible, the environment may still not be ‘very opening or welcoming for gay/lesbian headed families’.
Three of the participants stated they have or have had a co-worker who identified as gay/lesbian.
Two acknowledged that they have witnessed homophobic language being used and stated that they addressed this at the time.
Three respondents chose not to disclose whether they would challenge such behaviour or not.
Robinson (2005:178) asserts that homophobic comments must be ‘actively confronted’.
Failure to do so sends a ‘powerful message’ to children and their families; it goes beyond challenging instances as they occur (p.178).
A safe environment where ‘sexual identities, power and inequality can be explored critically with children and their families’ must be created (p.178).
Although Robinson (2002:431) found that homophobia ‘operate[s] unchecked and unchallenged in many early childhood settings, including those that espouse strong social justice values’.
The Policy and Practice Equation
The complex policy-practice relationship featured prominently in the gathered data.
Síolta states that equality must be embodied within early education policy and provision as guided by the UNCRC and the Equal Status Act 2000-2018.
In addition, settings must have policies which acknowledge diverse families.
However, these policies only make sense within inclusive practices.
Only one of the four settings interviewed accounts for same-sex families in their policies. Others do include the term diverse families, as one manager stated ‘the wording is general and can be interpreted to suit’.
The majority stated that their policies should be revised to include same-sex parents as they ‘only refer to diverse families’ with no explanation.
However, within the questionnaires, three practitioners specified that they do not feel the need for policy to be reviewed, with one practitioner stating it should be ‘general and not be specific in highlighting same-sex parents’.
Campbell and Janmohamed (2009:6,18) state that communicative language within settings is often heteronormative in nature, thereby neglecting to be inclusive of all families and silencing inclusivity policies.
With regard to the language used within the documentation, all settings refer to parents or parents/carers within their handbook.
Nevertheless, the same cannot be said of the admission forms, three settings still require the mother’s name/father’s name.
Newman’s (2010:11,12) case study demonstrates such heteronormative practices render same-sex families invisible.
Newman describes a lesbian mum enrolling in a setting and being asked for her partner's name, with reference made to ‘his’ name, a heterosexual family assumed
Despite settings positive disposition to family diversity within policy and a significant positive attitude towards same-sex families, the majority of settings do not reflect this in practice.
Allowing children to think about and respect differences at an early age is important as children absorb the norms of their world.
Promoting inclusivity empowers children ‘to stand up for themselves and others in the face of bias’ (DCYA, 2006:9).
Long-term this will aid the ‘wellbeing of individuals and communities’ (Kearns 2010:3).
Practitioner Learning and Preparation
This theme emerged from the research as the majority of practitioners revealed that they feel ill-equipped to address issues relating to same-sex families and would like further training.
Inclusion, equality and diversity are covered within education and training.
Nonetheless, the majority of interviewees specified that issues of same-sex families were not included; with very few encouraged to explore biases and attitudes regarding this issue.
The DCEDIY advocates that settings identify and rectify any ‘training gaps within the team’ (p.22).
The findings here show that this is not the case as no participant has undertaken any CPD (continuous professional development) in this area.
Similar to findings by Beren (2013:72), almost all participants stated that they would like further training.
Anti-bias training ensures that diverse issues such as same-sex families are visible, examined and understood within settings.
Conclusion of the research
Research indicates that there is an awareness of the multiple family structures within society within early years settings.
There is positivity regarding family diversity within settings policies, but this is more often to do with cultural diversity or disability.
The findings illustrate an accepting attitude towards same-sex parents. Nevertheless, settings were not very action-orientated and homophobic language had been witnessed and challenged.
Only one setting interviewed had experienced a same-sex family, while this family were present, they displayed awareness and inclusion of their needs.
Although all had received training covering inclusion, equality and diversity, at varying levels, findings suggest that higher levels of training lead to higher confidence.
Nevertheless, a staggering majority felt unequipped to deal effectively with same-sex families.
Furthermore, almost all expressed interest in CPD to allow same-sex families to be visible and heard within settings.
It is interesting to note the range of solutions that interviewees offered when challenged with the hypothetical situation regarding religious beliefs and same-sex books, indicating that when dealing with sensitive issues there may be no 'right' way to deal with this.
Finally, in order to overcome barriers sighted, one must be an agent of change and incorporate change into policy, pedagogy and practice.
The findings of this study indicate a positive attitude to family diversity in general. Furthermore, despite the limited experience with same-sex families, the settings demonstrated a similarly positive attitude.
Practitioners from two settings have had colleagues who have identified as homosexual and some have witnessed and challenged homophobic language, indicating that there is some element of homophobia present.
While it was indicated that policies were inclusive of diverse families, three of the settings do not use inclusive language on enrolment/admission forms.
Settings and practitioners were not found to be very action-oriented in their practice, with only one setting currently incorporating same-sex families into their curriculum.
The majority indicate that same-sex families are an appropriate topic to include within early years practice. However, some felt it is only necessary when a same-sex family is present in the setting.
Same-sex policies and practices should not be limited to circumstances where same-sex parents exist in a setting (Santora 2012:2). Children absorb the norms of society (Wolpert 2002:2).
It is vital to expose children, at a young age when they are ripe for development and learning, to various norms of sexuality in order to encourage a future society inclusive of all practitioners must strive to instil values of inclusivity towards same-sex families in their setting as they are role models, moulding potential leaders of tomorrow.
Where do we go from here?
In celebration of Pride Month 2023, we are opening the dialogue around LGBTQ+ families and same-sex parents in early years settings in Ireland and challenging every practitioner and setting owner to consider their inclusion practices and knowledge on the topic.
What can we learn from this? Where do we go from here?
Supporting same-sex families in the early years setting is essential as we move towards an inclusive, nurturing society for all. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
About the Author
Jacinta Murphyis a senior tutor and programme lead of the BA (Ord) in Early Childhood Care and Education and lectures on our BA (Hons) Inclusive Education Practice. She explains her journey in early years below.
"I began working in early education in 1994, and to be honest, did not know what I was taking on, but the times of work fitted with my family! Little did I know that I would find my life’s passion. I was fascinated by these young people and the fact that the sector was unregulated and basically providers could do what they liked.
"I began to read on the subject and improve my practice and returned to education in 2000 to study the Montessori Method. Since then, I have not stopped learning, through study, working with children and families, and through my role as a manager/lead practitioner in rural, urban, affluent, and disadvantaged areas. Most recently, I have completed my master's, a proud moment for me and my grown-up family!
"My experiences provide me with vast industry insight as I have experienced vast changes within our sector, frameworks, legislation, and others. In a setting, each year brings a different group dynamic, therefore it is essential to have the ability to reflect upon and amend provisions and practices to meet the needs of children, families, and staff. I hope that by bringing my practical experiences in the setting into my tutorials allows students to link theory and practice.
"In 2004, I became a tutor at Portobello Institute on a part-time basis. Currently, I work full-time for the Institute supporting full-time QQI Level 6 students in Child Development, Early Childhood Curriculum, Social, Legal and Health Studies and Personal and Professional Development. I am part of a vital, vibrant early childhood studies team. I lead the Level 7 Early Childhood Studies Degree and tutor on the modules such as Children’s Rights in Today’s World, Enquiry Based Learning and Communicating in Multilingual Contexts."
For access to the full research paper, including all references download the eBook of this academic paper here.
Want to Learn More?
If you are interested in learning more about gender equality and inclusion, it is explored in-depth on the BA (Ord) Early Childhood Studies degree, specifically the 'Challenging Inequalities in the Ealry Years' module.
You can see the upcoming start dates for our BA (Ord) in Early Childhood Studies and BA (Ord) in Inclusive Education Practice here.
Portobello Institute also offers a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Studies, BA (Hons) in Inclusive Education Practice, an MA in Early Childhood Studies and MA in Inclusive Education and SEN.
View all of our Early Years and Montessori courses here.
If you are interested in finding out more about any Early Years courses at Portobello Institute you can reach out to our Early Years Admissions Advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, who will answer any questions you may have. You can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer at a time that suits you here. Or you can email email@example.com or call her directly on 01 892 0031.