Selecting a school or college for a gender-expansive child can be a challenging process for families. We have tips that can help.
Choosing a School
There are many ways to evaluate if a school will be right for your child. Watch out for assumptions. Just because a school is located in a progressive area or has a progressive reputation,doesn’t mean that it will be great around gender; also, don’t assume the opposite is true. Talk to the administrators or admissions staff about gender diversity and see if you receive a welcoming or defensive response. It’s about the fit for your child.
Most schools won’t have a lot of direct experience in this area, but try to assess their attitude—will they see you as a problem, or an opportunity for the whole school community to learn together? Also, be mindful to address factors other than gender that may be pertinent to child’s learning and success. Pay attention to your gut reaction to these conversations, as it will give you important information about whether you will be comfortable sending your child to that school.
Some questions that may help you when evaluating schools include:
- What experience has the school had working with transgender, non-binary or otherwise gender-expansive kids?
- What specific professional development about gender has the school been involved with (as opposed to general LGBTQ or diversity training)? Would they be open to this?
- Are there any written policies at the school or district that specifically name gender?
- What parent education has taken place about gender? Would they be open to this?
- Are there any specific student lessons or activities that take place regarding gender? Would they be open to this?
- Does the school acknowledge gender as a spectrum, i.e., admission forms with options other than “male” and “female”, signs and other visual images of gender diversity in classrooms or on campus? Are there gender neutral restrooms at the school?
- Would a transgender child be allowed to use the restroom of their choice?
- Co-ed sports teams? Policies on transgender students in sports?
- Are there private spaces for changing clothes in locker rooms? Showering requirements for gym?
- What are the housing options for transgender or non-binary students on school trips?
- Is there a GSA or student organization related to gender?
- Does the school regularly divide kids by boys and girls, such as when they line up for recess or lunch?
- Do the teachers regularly address the kids as “boys and girls”?
- Does the school’s library have any literature about gender diversity?
- Does the school offer resources for parents who need help understanding gender diversity?
- Does the school include gender diversity in their puberty and/or sex education curriculum?
For teens and parents with older children, see our article on "Choosing a College."
Working with the School
Forming a positive relationship with school administrators and staff, whether you are new to a school or returning, it vital to the safety and success of your gender-expansive child -- you will need to be proactive. You cannot assume that schools with general anti-bullying policies will be responsive to the needs of your child. Be sure to approach the school as partners, not as adversaries. Assume they have positive intentions; the vast majority of educators are interested in the well-being of the students and families they serve. However, most have little or no training about working with gender-expansive children. It may be that you will need to help them by providing resources, materials, and examples of other schools that have successfully met the needs of gender-expansive students.
Most schools have written or unwritten aspirations around inclusion and diversity; bring these into your discussions to show you want what is best for the whole school community. You may be hopefully working with these teachers and administrators for many years, and not only around issues of gender, so the goal is to forge a positive collaboration. You can use our outline, “Initial School Meeting” as a guide.
Even before your child starts at a school, you can start preparing. Many schools do professional development during the few weeks before school starts. Ask for gender training to be included in this professional development, so teachers feel prepared to deal with your gender-expansive or transgender child. Even if you are the first family at the school with a gender-expansive child, you certainly won’t be the last. Point out that it is in the best interest of all of the students, not just your student, for the staff to be trained, as gender affects every child and the school wants to create a gender-inclusive environment. The good news is that resources exist to help educate schools, including our own resources and trainings.
Safety in School
It is well documented that a safe environment optimizes a child’s ability to learn. A child cannot effectively learn when they live in fear of discrimination. All children, including gender-expansive and transgender children, deserve a safe school environment, free from bullying, teasing and violence, and it is the school’s legal responsibility to maintain that environment. Your child’s gender identity or gender expression in no way excuses mistreatment by other students, staff or parents. While it is important to work in partnership with the school, your child’s physical safety and emotional well-being are non-negotiable. School districts and individual school administrators can be held liable under various federal, state and local laws for failing to protect students from harassment based on gender identity. From the beginning, if you believe your child is being mistreated based on gender, document those concerns and share them with the school leader. Make it clear that while you wish to work with the school, you will take whatever steps necessary to keep your child safe. If you’ve tried to work with the school and they are unresponsive or unreasonable, you may need legal advice.
Bullying in School
Bullying is a serious problem for any student. Most schools recognize this fact, and many are adopting programs and policies to create environments that do not allow or tolerate bullying. Bullying can take the form of one or more students directly teasing, taunting, or threatening another.
Bullying comes in other, more indirect forms as well. A student may experience intentional social isolation perpetrated by their peers, and sometimes even reinforced by teachers and/or the administration.
Often, bullying is related to gender expression, even if on the surface it appears to be motivated by something else. For instance, a boy may be taunted as “gay,” not because he is in fact gay, but because his gender expression falls outside the society’s norms of masculinity. Your school may not specifically name gender expression or gender identity as reasons for bullying, but it does not mean that they will not respond proactively. Further education about gender diversity is often needed for teachers and school administrators to respond most effectively.
Other School Issues
Along with a child’s general safety and well-being, there are several specific areas that will require your attention. These include how your child will be referred to (name and pronouns), and listed on school records, how your child’s privacy will be protected, will your child be allowed to use the restroom and locker room aligned with their gender identity, and participation in overnight trips, sports or clubs.
As students get older, they must navigate school dance, crushes, and gossip. Talking about these situations ahead of time with your child will help them be prepared. Our “Gender Support Plan” is a great tool to help you in these discussions with your school.