Topics related to sexuality are sensitive for teachers to address in elementary schools. But just because children are too young to have a sophisticated understanding of adult relationships doesn’t mean that words related to sexual identity aren’t already in the lexicons of young bullies and their targets.
Because of this, teachers who want to provide a safe environment for all their students must stop bullying based on gender roles, and on the diversity of family structures. And teachers must address these topics in an age-appropriate way — not pretend they don’t exist.
Unfortunately, though, few teachers receive training or professional development on gender issues or on families with lesbian or gay parents, even though a majority of teachers do receive training on diversity and multicultural issues in general.
This is among the findings 0f a large new study, “Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States,” published by the Gay Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Among other findings:
- The most common forms of biased language in elementary schools are the use of the word “gay” in a negative way, such as “that’s so gay,” and comments like “spaz” or “retard.” About half of students and teachers regularly hear this language at school. About a quarter also report regularly hearing students make homophobic remarks, such as “fag” or “lesbo,” and negative comments about race/ethnicity.
- Gender nonconforming students (that is, students who don’t stick to traditional gender roles) are less likely than other students to feel very safe at school (42% vs 61%), and are more likely than others to indicate they sometimes do not want to go to school because they feel unsafe or afraid there (35% vs 15%). Gender nonconforming students are also more likely than others to be called names, made fun of or bullied at least sometimes at school (56% vs 33%).
- Less than half of teachers believe that a gender nonconforming student would feel comfortable at their school (male student who acts or looks traditionally feminine: 44%, female student who acts or looks traditionally masculine: 49%)
- Only a third (34%) of teachers report having personally engaged in efforts to create a safe and supportive classroom environment for gender nonconforming students.
- Seven in ten students (72%) say they have been taught that there are many different kinds of families. However, less than 2 in 10 (18%) have learned about families with gay or lesbian parents (families that have two dads or two moms).
So how can a teacher respond effectively? GLSEN has published a free, downloadable toolkit for elementary school teachers, called Ready, Set, Respect! that includes scenarios, tips for interventions, and lesson plans, all centered around the concept of respect. That includes respect for one another’s hobbies and interests (even if that’s ballet dancing for a boy, for example), and for one another’s families – regardless of the genders of their parents.
This is a great resource for teachers who want to do more to make their classroom safe for all students, and to set norms of respectful behavior that will hopefully last into middle school and beyond.