Initially, former elementary school principal Anthony Ciuffo dismissed the idea that a child who was identified as male at birth would wear a dress to his school. In Ciuffi’s mind, permitting it might subject the student to bullying and ridicule. But school psychologist Tracy Zelenetz, who had raised the issue, responded, "What message would we be sending if we didn't allow it?"
The question led Ciuffo on a quest to learn more about gender identity, and culminated in a recent article on ASCD: “Rethinking Conventions: Keeping Gender-Diverse Students Safe." There are many safety risks and specific social-emotional concerns for gender nonconforming students such as higher rates of anxiety, school avoidance, and depression. “Indeed, many gender-variant children keep their affirmed gender secret,” Ciuffo writes.
How do you support gender-nonconforming students? Ciuffo and Zelenetz created a four-part framework:
1. Immerse yourself in the literature: Ciuffo and Zelenetz surveyed the literature for more information about gender non-conformity. “...[P]erhaps the most important lesson we gleaned from our immersion in the literature was the idea that gender is not the binary concept (where someone is either a girl or a boy) that most of us have grown up believing it to be,” he writes. When school leaders understand the research and evidence about gender, they are better prepared to address the safety issues of their schools. “The most important thing that building leaders can do when trying to create a mindset shift of any kind is to increase their own knowledge base.” Ciuffo and Zelenetz read: Schools In Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools, the Gender Spectrum site, and the Harsh Realities report.
Increasing competency and understanding around gender issues gives school leaders the confidence to share information with teachers and other staff. After they learned more, Ciuffo and Zelenetz held a meeting to convey their new findings to the teachers who would interact with students. Their presentation “highlighted key information on gender and included a video of one family's personal story.” In the days following the meeting, teachers approached with questions. “Most of their questions stemmed from unease about how they would address questions that came their way from their own students or parents of their students,” Ciuffo writes.
2. Model respect for all students: Modeling respect for all gender identities is key, Ciuffo argues. “As a building leader, I was also aware that the tone of a building is set by what you allow, what you stop, what you ignore, and what you reinforce.” They chose a message to become a mantra for the school community: “Different people like different things, and this is OK. Colors are colors, toys are toys, and it's OK to like whatever it is you like.” In addition to watching out for bullying, teachers can modify their language to respect differences. For example, Ciuffo writes, refrain from referring to toys as “boys’ toys” or “girls’ toys.” “We also asked our staff to reconsider how they managed some of their everyday tasks, such as lining students up, calling them to the carpet, or giving out classroom materials (such as stickers or coloring sheets) based on standard gender differences,” he writes.
3. Uphold professionalism: No matter what one’s personal perspective may be, Ciuffo says, the safety of every student must be the top priority for a school leader. “The truth is that any potential discomfort we or others may have dealing with gender issues head-on does not outweigh a student's right to be safe and feel included,” he writes. While understanding a different perspective may not be easy, it is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all students.
4. Build relationships and a culture of respect and safety: Ciuffo and Zelenetz made the effort to get to know the gender nonconforming students personally, and it was through those relationships that they learned of instances of bullying. Nurturing relationships with students creates the kind of environment that will allow gender nonconforming students to feel comfortable disclosing when teasing or bullying happens.