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Teaching Tolerance: Atypical Gender Behavior in the Classroom

What does an educator do when Jack wants to be Jane at school? A look at atypical gender behavior in the classroom

When it was time to line up “by boys and girls” to go the bathroom at the Wisconsin elementary school, the little girl who considered herself a boy didn’t know what to do. Neither did her teacher, a veteran educator facing the situation for the first time at the end of a lengthy classroom career.

The student was displaying gender variant behavior – identifying with the traditional trappings of the opposite sex. It’s not necessarily an issue of sexuality. It can be as basic as an artistic choice – a boy who wants to color only with the pink crayon and draw princesses, or something more complex – a girl who believes herself to be a boy.

Evolving social attitudes about gender variant behavior make it an issue with which educators must familiarize themselves, say experts who study such behavior and educators who’ve experienced it in their classrooms.

“The culture is changing,” says Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a psychiatrist and gender variance expert from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “Now what is happening is a change in attitudes and (young) people declaring their identity in a more assertive way.”

Estimates of gender variance rates in children are limited by the
 small number of available studies, says Menvielle. What tallies do exist indicate that one percent of children wish to be the
 opposite sex, and anywhere from four to 10 percent exhibit behaviors of the opposite sex on a consistent basis.

Whether educators agree personally with parents allowing a child to take such a public step, they have an obligation to help him learn in a safe environment, says Bonnie Augusta, a Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender resource teacher in Madison, Wisconsin.

“You can be different places professionally and personally. But professionally we support every single kid who walks through our door.” (Experts like Menvielle believe attempting to suppress children’s gender variant behavior does more psychological harm than good.)

In Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California, younger and younger children recently garnered headlines for attending school outfitted in the clothing of the opposite sex – typically the most recognizable sign of a gender issue. Their school districts are reacting disparately, with some (Marion, Florida) prohibiting students from dressing in clothes that do not match their biological gender and others (Los Angeles) allowing students to select the name, gender pronoun, bathroom and locker room of their choosing.

“It happens across the country,” says Menvielle, “in rural and urban areas.” His hospital’s listserv for parents of gender variant children comprises members from roughly forty states.

It happens in Marietta, Georgia, where a kindergarten teacher last year had the parents of one her students request a conference to explain that their son was a little different. He preferred Disney princesses, the color pink, and other stereotypically feminine toys, trinkets, and activities. Working together, she, the classroom paraprofessional, and the parents set out on a pathfinding year that involved everything from lesson plan adjustments to observation of his behavior, monitoring for signs of emotional withdrawal.

She removed such gender-specific treats as rings and necklaces from her classroom “treasure box” used to reward students and took dresses and purses out of the housekeeping station in the classroom. When she noticed on show-and-tell day that he’d brought his pink iPod, she started the activity by mentioning that her husband loves to wear pink shirts (“It’s true!” says the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the student), helping to nip in the bud any teasing that might have come the boy’s way.

Like this Georgia educator, the veteran Wisconsin teacher adjusted her classroom procedures to make the gender variant female more comfortable. That meant lining the children up for the bathrooms without regard for gender and no longer assigning classroom chores as “boys’ jobs” and “girls’ jobs.”

Having an educator willing to make these changes and work with a student can bring relief for parents petrified about sending their child off to school each day, knowing that

One Cambridge, Massachusetts, father says his sixth-grade son – who identifies as a girl -- has enjoyed “nothing short of total acceptance within his classroom,” thanks to his teachers and school counselor. “There are teachers (in the school) who don’t get it,” he says, but “we are lucky. We haven’t had one for my son.”

Augusta, the GLBT resource teacher, advises educators not to call attention to a student displaying gender behavior, but to handle questions posed by fellow students honestly. If another student asks why a boy is wearing a skirt, “say ‘That’s just what he likes.’” For young children that will usually be enough, she says. Older students can benefit from lessons on human diversity.

The Georgia teacher taught lessons throughout the year that celebrated people’s differences. When she heard the boy in her classroom announce to a classmate during playtime that it was OK that he was different she knew she’d helped make his educational experience that year a better, safer one.

“I believe it's my job to take each child regardless of what they bring to the table and love them for what they are,” says the teacher, now in her eleventh year in the classroom.

With such a tolerant teacher, school may be the only place that a student with gender identity issues feels comfortable expressing himself, according to experts like Menvielle.

“Their parents may not be very supportive,” Menvielle says. “Reach out to the student and express to them that they are fine human beings…that there are different ways of being a boy or a girl. Coming from an authority figure that can be extremely valuable.” Especially, he adds, if they’re not getting that message at home.

But what about that first day, when a teacher notices that something is different about the little boy or girl in front of them? What if there wasn’t any conference requested by the parents? Teachers who’ve lived it advise their colleagues to contact the parents about behavior they feel may be a result of gender confusion – withdrawing, signs of anxiety. If what they believe to be the cause – gender confusion – arises, it can make for a more complete conversation, but teachers should wait for the parents’ cues before broaching that discussion

The key is to stay focused on the student’s classroom experience, and what will help him have a productive and safe year, says Augusta.

“There’s so much anticipatory anxiety around all of these issues,” she says. “After you’re into it you look back and say ‘Oh, that wasn’t that hard.’”

Film about challenges faced by transgendered students. Click to watch.


Blogs by two gender variant students:

Other useful links: