Exploring trans and gender diverse issues in primary education in South Australia
Riggs, Damien Wayne
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Executive Summary An increasing number of young children identify with a gender that differs from that normatively expected of their natally-assigned sex (e.g. Smith & Matthews, 2015; Telfer, Tollit, & Feldman, 2015). Such young children tend to be referred to as trans or gender diverse. The term ‘trans’ is typically used to refer to people whose gender or gender expression differs from that normatively expected of their natally-assigned sex (where those born with a penis are assigned male and expected to act in stereotypically masculine ways or to present themselves as male, and where those born with a vagina are assigned female and expected to act in stereotypically feminine ways or to present themselves as female). The term ‘gender diverse’ is typically used to refer to people whose gender identity is not encompassed by the two categories ‘male’ or ‘female’. Importantly, the terms ‘trans’ and ‘gender diverse’ encompass a wide range of gender expressions. While population studies suggest that between 0.5% and 1% of people are trans or gender diverse (Clark et al., 2014; Conron, Scott, Stowell, & Landers, 2012), it has been suggested that figures of gender diversity are significantly higher during childhood (Möller, Schreier, Li, & Romer, 2009). Brill and Pepper (2008) argue that there are three typical ages when people acknowledge that they are trans or gender diverse: childhood, preteen/early adolescence, and late adolescence. For children who disclose that they are trans or gender diverse, the likelihood of having their gender affirmed by others is closely related to people’s understandings of gender diversity. Schools constitute a key context in which children may disclose that they are trans or gender diverse, thus highlighting the importance of schools providing affirming and informed responses. However, research with parents of trans and gender diverse primary school children suggests that a key barrier to inclusion in schools relates to staff members’ understandings of gender, and whether issues of gender diversity are viewed as taboo or are positively included within school policies and practices (Pullen Sansfaçon, Robichaud, & Dumais-Michaud, 2015). Australian research with students at the secondary level has clearly documented trans and gender diverse students’ negative experiences of school and the implications of this for their well-being (Jones & Hillier, 2013; Jones et al., 2016; Smith et al., 2014; Ullman, 2015). Australian research with parents of trans children, including at the primary level, has emphasised the importance of supportive schools, and the negative impact of gender stereotyping in schools (Riley, Sitharthan, Clemson, & Diamond, 2013), including by school counsellors and psychologists (Riggs & Bartholomaeus, 2015). The important role that schools can play is currently hindered in Australia by two key issues: 1) the lack of opportunities for educator professional development and support for working with trans and gender diverse students, and 2) the broader climate of misunderstanding and fear, evidenced in recent debates about the Safe Schools Coalition. The research documented in this report extends the limited amount of research about trans and gender diverse issues in primary education internationally. Rather than focusing on individual trans and gender diverse students, the research examines broader school cultures in relation to educator attitudes and knowledge and the usefulness of classroom resources in the form of picture books for creating inclusive schools. The project received ethics approval from Flinders University and the Department for Education and Child Development. The research objectives of the project were to: 1. Identify the existing attitudes and knowledge of in-service and pre-service primary school teachers in South Australia about trans and gender diverse students and issues 2. Audit available picture books featuring trans or gender diverse characters 3. Explore the usefulness of picture books which include trans characters for use in primary classrooms by examining students’ understandings 4. Create an online resource with information for supporting trans and gender diverse young people An online survey examining attitudes towards inclusion, comfort, and confidence in relation to trans and gender diverse students was completed by a sample of South Australian primary school teachers (n = 75) and pre-service teachers (n = 105). Findings between the two cohorts were very similar. The findings from both groups overall suggest that women had more positive attitudes and greater comfort in working with trans and gender diverse students, and that those who had previously worked with a trans or gender diverse student and who had undertaken training had more positive attitudes, greater comfort, and greater confidence in working with trans and gender diverse students. An audit of picture books featuring trans or gender diverse characters found that there were 34 such books in existence. Twenty of these books focus on trans characters specifically, while 14 focus on various forms of gender diversity. Of those books currently in existence, only three are Australian. The books provide an array of different storylines and relationships which may be useful for exploring with trans and gender diverse children as well as whole classes of children. However, the books often draw on gender stereotypes, reflecting broader cultural representations and understandings of trans and gender diverse people. Picture books featuring trans characters were explored in book reading sessions with one class of junior primary school students in a government school in South Australia. These books were useful for encouraging discussion and exploration of trans and gender diverse people’s lives. The issues raised in the books were not always clear to the students, although their understandings appeared to grow over the sessions and they were often supportive of the characters. Overall, the salience of hair and clothing in determining gender was central, and many students viewed gender as something fundamental. In some ways the students reiterated the framings of the books in terms of the constructions of binaries (girl/boy) and gender-typed clothing and hair length. Drawing on these three sources of data, the report concludes with recommendations for developing inclusive school cultures, with a focus on making professional development, resources, and support available to educators. The findings from the three studies highlight the need for: 1. The provision of ongoing teacher education, as professional development and within universities 2. Additional resourcing of programs aimed at facilitating inclusion, such as the Safe Schools Coalition 3. DECD-sanctioned policies and guidelines to support teachers and schools to create inclusive whole school cultures 4. Increase in provision of resources to learn about gender diversity, such as picture books in school libraries, and clearer teaching guides for how to use these in class.