Supporting a Positive Gender Identity in Early Education: Nurturing Inclusivity and Self-Expression
To celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month in June 2023, Portobello Institute is examining important issues centered 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 and course coordinator Dr Marguerita Magennis has written the following article exploring positive gender identity in early education.
In early education, fostering a positive gender identity is vital for children's wellbeing and development.
As young children begin to navigate their understanding of gender, educators must create a supportive and inclusive environment that allows children to explore and express their gender identity freely.
Early educators can help children develop a healthy and positive sense of self by promoting inclusivity, challenging stereotypes, and providing opportunities for self-expression.
Hines (2018) and Perry et al. (2019) identify the need for an awareness of the increasing fluidity within society, suggesting that practitioners and educators in early years should draw attention to and encourage the healthy growth of gender identity in early childhood.
In recent years we have seen a paradigm shift in terms of an awareness of the need to educate oneself on gender identity and the use of correct pronouns, and in early education, fostering a positive gender identity is vital for children's overall wellbeing and development.
Regardless of whether we are working with LGBTQ+ parents or working with older children to support them through social gender transitioning, and even when engaging with mundane things like ensuring we avoid stereotypical language, it is vital to remember all of this can have a significant impact on children's identity and wellbeing (Hines, 2018); with Olson (2022) supporting claims that mental health and wellbeing in children who are supported in their gender identity is significantly better than for those who are not.
Creating an inclusive environment starts with embracing diversity in all its forms, beginning with embracing the diversity of gender identities and family structures, including those of LGBTQ families.
Educators should recognise that gender identity is a spectrum that children may identify outside of traditional binary categories and remember the unique challenges same-sex parents face.
By using inclusive language and avoiding gender stereotypes, educators can foster a space where children feel safe and accepted regardless of gender identity.
Incorporating diverse reading materials, story books and classroom materials representing various gender identities and expressions will further reinforce inclusivity and help children develop empathy and respect for others.
Breaking down gender stereotypes and addressing LGBTQ bias is crucial in promoting a positive gender identity amongst young children and the wider community.
Educators can challenge stereotypes by introducing children to diverse role models and career options that defy traditional gender norms.
Engaging in open discussions about gender roles and expectations can also encourage critical thinking and help children question societal norms.
Additionally, educators should ensure that all children have equal opportunities to engage in various activities, regardless of gender, promoting a sense of agency and self-determination.
Early education should provide a nurturing space for children to explore and express their gender identity freely.
Educators can encourage self-expression by offering a variety of materials and activities that allow children to explore different aspects of their identity, such as dressing up, role-playing, or artistic expression.
By creating a non-judgmental environment for children, they can authentically express themselves, while educators validate their experiences and help build a positive self-image.
Educator Reflection and Awareness
To effectively support a positive gender identity, educators must engage in ongoing self-reflection and awareness building.
It is crucial for educators to examine their own biases, beliefs and understanding of gender identity and to note that sometimes we can have a hidden prejudice and that our upbringing and culture will have influenced our views.
Professional development workshops and resources can provide educators with the knowledge and tools to navigate conversations around gender and ensure that they are equipped to support children's diverse identities without influencing them.
Educators should be open to learning from their experiences and families in their setting and be willing to adapt their practices to ensure an established supportive and inclusive environment.
Collaboration with families is crucial in supporting a positive gender identity in early education.
Educators should maintain open lines of communication with families, seeking their input and valuing their perspectives.
By involving families, seeking their information and valuing their perspectives. By involving families in discussions about gender identity, educators can better understand the unique needs of each child and establish a consistent approach that supports their development.
Additionally, families can play a crucial role in reinforcing positive messages about gender identity at home, creating a cohesive support system that nurtures children's self-esteem and identity.
Bandura's social learning theory is pertinent in recognising that children learn through imitation and following the lead of their role models (Smith et al., 2010).
Equally, we are all likely to be familiar with Bandura's modelling theory, suggesting that the role of the adult very much impacts the child's overall wellbeing and development, leading us to consider his theory of gender development, with modelling playing a crucial role, more significantly the part of gender stereotyping (Makarova et al., 2019); with Hines (2018) suggesting that these stereotypes ultimately limit societies full potential and cause insular views and values.
Building a Culture of Respect and Acceptance
Creating a culture of respect and acceptance is at the core of supporting a positive gender identity.
Educators could establish clear expectations for behaviour that promote inclusivity and challenge discriminatory attitudes or actions.
Classroom discussions should emphasise respect for all individuals, regardless of gender identity, and embrace diversity.
By fostering a culture of acceptance, educators can create a safe and supportive environment that encourages children to embrace their authentic selves and fosters positive relationships among children and families without our early education settings.
Leigh and Wilson (2020) highlight the importance of providing a certain level of familiarity to help ease anxiety levels, suggesting that the journey of self often feels unsafe and uncertain, a sense which can be extenuated if inadequate support is provided during these crucial times.
Supporting a positive gender identity in early education requires educators to embrace inclusivity, challenge stereotypes, provide opportunities for self-expression, and actively support LGBTQ families and all families.
By creating an inclusive and affirming classroom that celebrates the diversity of gender identities and family structures, educators play a crucial role in helping children develop a healthy and positive sense of self.
Through intentional and affirming practices, early educators can create an environment where all children and their families, regardless of their gender identity or family structure, feel accepted, valued and celebrated for who they are as individuals.
About the Author
Dr Marguerita Magennis, Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies, MA in Inclusive Education and SEN & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute.
Portobello Institute offers an MA in Inclusive Education and SEN and an MA in Early Childhood Studies. You can see the upcoming start dates here.
For Early Years and Inclusive Education Studies, you can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer Matteazzi at a time that suits you here. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call her directly on 01 892 0031.
Bandura A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bos H., Sandfort T. G. M. (2010). Children's gender identity in lesbian and heterosexual two-parent families. Sex Roles, 62, 114–126. Retrieved from https://doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9704-7
Fulcher, M., Sutfin, E.L., and Patterson, C.J. (2008) Individual differences in gender development: Associations with parental sexual orientation, attitudes, and divisions of labour. Sex Roles.[Google Scholar]
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Hines, S. (2018) Is Gender Fluid? A primer for the 21st Century: Thames and Hudson Ltd. UK.
Leigh, J., and Wilson, S. (2020) 'Sylvia's story: Time, liminal space and the maternal commons', Qualitative Social work: QSW: research and practice (19)3:440-459.
Makarova, E. Aeschlimann, B. Herzog, W. (2019) 'The Gender Gap in STEM Fields: The Impact of the Gender Stereotype of Math and Science on Secondary Students' Career Aspirations' Gendered Paths into STEM. Disparities Between Females and Males in STEM Over the Life-Span.
Maslow, A. (1943) 'A Theory of Human Motivation.' Psychological Review. (50) pp. 370 -396.