I worked in three different EYFS settings last week, in three very different socio-economic areas. In each setting there were children actively testing or experimenting with the expected norms of their gender. It was quite interesting to see three striking examples in such close succession.
At the first school there was a boy who will, as soon as he is able, put on a dress and pretty much keep it on as long as he could. We’ll call him Bob.
At the second school was a child with a girl’s name (we’ll say Jenny, for now) but has a very boyish face and a ‘boy’s’ haircut.
The third school I visited was on a non-uniform day and I was told by the TAs that one child (with a fairly gender neutral name but biologically male) with long hair, would likely come in wearing a dress. In the end, he turned up wearing a dress, pink leggings and Ugg boots. We’ll call him Kerry.
As you would expect, none of the staff made an issue of these children but what was more encouraging was that, for the most part, none of their peers made comment on it either. Admittedly, the children are only four and five, so don’t really have a mature sense of gender identity and norms but they were not singling out these other children as different from them. Irrespective of this, as an adult, you tend to (whether intentional or not) view children through a gendered lens. These behaviours are uncommon enough to warrant comment or explanation by members or staff (or to brief the uninitiated supply teacher) in a way that other children’s quirks may not. Interestingly, while information packs for supply teachers often include important information such as allergy or behaviour triggers of certain children, I can’t imagine that a school would even dare to address such a topic in an information pack. Even if they did, what would it say?
‘Kerry, although biologically a boy, likes to wear girls’ clothes and we suspect he is experiencing the early onset of gender dysphoia.’
Can you imagine the reaction from parents, even if they supported the child? I can’t imagine how a school would even address such an issue. I guess that the reason I can’t imagine how they would address is it because in the EYFS, such exploration and discovery is acceptable part of a child discovering who they are. It is as the child grows older that issues may begin to present themselves.
Going back to the children listed above, maybe it was all just phases, Bob just liked dressing up (and was a slightly strange child but that’s unrelated) but did not appear confused about his gender. Jenny, apparently one day just demanded that she have a boy’s haircut, much to her parent’s confusion (but to their credit, they supported her). She also approached me in the afternoon saying “Some children said I’m a boy but I’m a girl,” a clear sign that she identifies as a girl. Kerry, however, seems a much more complex character. The TAs had explained that there was a slight issue as he has begun using the girls’ toilets and really does identify as a girl. Again, at four or five, which toilet you use isn’t really a problem (most settings have unisex toilets anyway) but as Kerry grows older he will find that the he is increasingly channelled into expectations of what a boy should do and be, which he may find increasingly painful if he inherently does not identify as a boy.
It can start as small things, such as which toilet he is expected to use (but not forced into), not fully understanding why he has to use what he sees as the wrong toilet. Then there might be cases of which line to join (boys or girls?) or the expectation of what boys and girls like to play. As the children grow older, peer pressure, socialisation and social norms will begin to have a bigger impact on his view of himself and where he belongs. His head and heart will be telling him one thing but his body will be projecting something entirely different. On top of those divergent spheres, external social pressures will be being applied: how children expect other children to behave is a huge aspect of school. There can be a lot of pressure to conform to those expectations or face being ostracised from social groups and friendships. That is a lot for an already conflicted child to cope with.
As teachers we can do the best we can do to support children like this, not make it an issue and do our best to nourish an accepting classroom environment. We can hope that the children’s parents are also supportive (if a boy is coming to school wearing a dress and pink leggings or a girl arrives with a short back and sides, we can assume, to a degree they must be) but sadly we can not protect other children from what they may hear outside the school gates. If other adults think something is strange, they will often comment (it’s enough of a ‘thing’ for me to produce this lengthy blog, for example) and kids can pick up on that. Even if they don’t fully understand what they’ve heard, children will often parrot it. I’m not sure the best way to ensure that everyone is accepted for their difference without drawing disproportionate attention to that difference. Reading Elmer the Patchwork Elephant will only work for a couple of years.
Parents can’t legislate and protect their child from the sometimes negative experiences that their child will inevitably face as they get older. It is not the parents’ ability or, to be honest, completely their responsibility. Parents need to let their children face challenging circumstances and allow them to build their resilience in their own way, offering a cushion of support and a hand to hold when their child needs it. The best a teacher can do is aim to support a child wherever possible, and be aware that you may be the only adult that they trust (OK, so we may have drifted away from the EYFS kids here)!