Trans children face significant challenges in primary and secondary schools. As a parent of a trans child in primary school, and as a researcher undertaking a PhD on trans children in education, I’m keen that we learn from existing evidence on how to best support trans children in our schools.1
My latest (free to access) article in a LGBT education special edition of Frontiers of Sociology provides a comprehensive synthesis and analysis of global literature on trans children’s experience in primary and secondary schools (Horton, 2020). In this blog I pull out three themes discussed in the article.
The article highlights the stigma, invalidation, discrimination and harassment that trans children commonly encounter at school. It introduces the concept of cisnormativity, which is when systems, policies and people assume that everyone is (or should be) cis (not trans). Cisnormative schools place trans pupils at a disadvantage, requiring them to navigate systems that delegitimise and exclude them. Trans pupils experience persistent stress as they navigate cisnormativity across their school, which has an emotional and psychological impact on them that teachers and cis peers may not be aware of.
‘Trans pupils experience persistent stress as they navigate cisnormativity across their school, which has an emotional and psychological impact on them that teachers and cis peers may not be aware of.’
The article highlights the burden placed on the shoulders of trans pupils when schools respond to individual requests reactively, with trans pupils expected to negotiate their own inclusion. Trans pupils are left to negotiate their own inclusion in cisnormative systems permeated by a culture of silence about trans lives at school; a culture in which even minimal trans representation can be perceived as excessive. Trans pupils denied representation in school experience shame and low self-esteem, and are forced to educate their own peers. The article highlights the significant harm when trans pupils experience ignorance or hostility from school staff, with high levels of school dropout. Yet even one supportive and trusted teacher can make a profound positive impact on a trans pupil’s experience of school. Teacher trans-positivity is significantly correlated with pupil wellbeing.
The article also highlighted the ways that school staff can improve wellbeing of trans pupils, building schools in which trans pupils can succeed. Teachers, headteachers, administrators and governors can do many things that will significantly improve the educational experience of trans pupils. These actions (listed below) will support trans pupils’ mental health and educational attainment, making them less likely to drop out of education, and provide more equitable education and enable trans pupils to thrive.
- Affirmative language, respect and trans-positivity are critical. Trans pupils need teachers who know that trans identities are valid, positive and equal.
- Schools need to move from individualised accommodation to proactive and sustained adaptation. Trans pupils should not have to ask for or negotiate equality and respect. Changes should not be one-off accommodations, but changes to systems and practices so that every trans child is automatically welcomed.
- Trans representation and visibility needs to become common and unremarkable, enabling trans pupils to grow up with a sense of belonging and self-worth. Teachers need to question their own biases if trans representation is seen in any way differently to representation of people who are cis.
- Schools need to recognise and address the pressures and barriers to teacher action. Clear leadership is essential, and can be driven by governors, headteachers and individual members of staff.
- Trans pupils need at least one adult who can advocate for them, help them understand their rights, and help them navigate cisnormative cultures. Teacher allies need to understand and challenge the systems and approaches that delegitimise and marginalise trans pupils.
- Schools should listen to trans pupils and centre child rights. Schools also need to consider their institutional responsibilities, ensuring schools are fulfilling their duty of care to trans pupils.
We need a collective raising of ambition for trans pupils, and a recognition that children have a right to be secure, safe, respected and validated in their schools. Trans pupils shouldn’t shoulder the burden of educating their classmates, nor should they be expected to negotiate their own inclusion.
1. The term ‘trans’ is used here to include people who are transgender, non-binary and/or gender diverse.
Horton, C. (2020). Thriving or surviving? Raising our ambition for trans children in primary and secondary schools. Frontiers in Sociology, 5(67). https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2020.00067
Note: an infographic/poster summarising key findings and recommendations from this paper is available in a number of formats. See https://growinguptransgender.com/2020/08/17/supporting-trans-children-in-schools-peer-reviewed-education-resource/