PRIDE month might be over, but I wanted to write about how we absolutely can and should create LGBTQIA+ affirming, inclusive early childhood classrooms — including in early childhood special education classrooms.
When people ask, “Why?”, I want to respond, “Why not?” Because, to me, it’s obviously the right thing to do. I love my students and their families. Loving them means accepting them. It means cherishing their autistic selves. It means supporting their gender identity. It means welcoming their families, in all the forms they take. I want to live in a world where everyone knows that they belong, as themselves. Unfortunately, our world doesn’t do a very good job of this yet. I can, however, make sure that my classroom does.
All too often, people answer “because it’s inappropriate”. If this is you, if this is what you’ve thought, then I ask you to please sit with this post, breathe, and think through what I am saying. Those automatic responses have all too often been ingrained into you by a homophobic, transphobic world. And I am asking — for the sake of our students — to try to understand a different way. Remember that autistic individuals are up to 6x more likely to identify as trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer. My guess is that you probably know someone who identifies as such — and just hasn’t told you, because it’s not a safe world to do so. It might even be one of your students. And, yes, even in preschool, there are students who want to explore, to question, or even flat-out know.
Those kids deserve the words and language to do so. I didn’t have these types of words for how I felt when I was little. They didn’t exist, and they weren’t mainstream. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Because when we don’t have the words, when we don’t know that it’s okay, all we feel is alone. Deeply, deeply alone. Alone and wrong. I remember being brought to the store to buy “more girly clothes” multiple times per year. I remember trying, so hard, to do what everyone else wanted, to wear what I was “supposed” to wear, to fit in. I remember it being painful. I remember it being short-term, and impossible. I remember the exasperated sighs when I chose cotton t-shirts, lounge pants, and VANS. Repeatedly. I remember being afraid to cut my hair short. I remember being so confused. Twenty years later, I remember all of these things. And I’m forever, forever, forever grateful for the Internet and friends who gave me words like agender (not identifying with a particular gender) and autigender (a person whose experience of gender is influenced by their autism).
Personal experiences aside… when I hear, “it’s inappropriate”, what I hear is discrimination. We talk about boys and girls, moms and dads, in every single preschool classroom I’ve ever seen. We have whole units of study about family, dress-up corners for trying on different roles, and practice he/she pronouns when we teach language and read stories. Cis-hetero culture is mainstreamed and embedded in our classrooms as “the norm”, as “accepted”. So when we say that talking about LGBTQIA+ stories is “inappropriate”, then we are discriminating by making something taboo, turning different into “deviant”, and perhaps even sexualizing something — all of which are common foundations on which hate speech, conversion therapy, and other oppressive actions have been built on for eons and eons. My guess is that you’re not thinking about the connection, but it’s there. Think about it with something else — if you never, ever talked about red-hair color, if you only ever acknowledged blonde, brown, and black, or if you even told them that, “no, we don’t talk about that here”, then what would our students internalize about red hair? We can’t do that to our kids. We can’t do this to our fellow LGBTQIA+ humans. We can’t do this and still say we love them. We can’t do that and still say we are building inclusive spaces.
So, yes, we can make different choices with toddlers and preschoolers. We can choose to affirm a world where everyone belongs. We can choose to name things, to normalize them, to make them part of our circle. And it’s really not that difficult. Read some of the suggestions below and ask yourself, “Would this really be that hard? Would this really be too much? Wouldn’t it be worth it, if one kid felt seen? If one kid felt heard?” I know it is.
Ways To Be More Inclusive
Stop using “boys and girls” to call students to lunch, line-up, or any other activity. There are lots of other ways that you can refer to students (including… students). Using “boys and girls” to call kids to line up, create patterns, separate into groups, etc.., just reinforces that there is a gender binary, either/or. It’s an easy change.
Create an LGBTQIA+ inclusive library. Books are everything! Make sure you have books that include all kinds of families, gender expressions, etc, in your library, and do it all year long. Some of our favorites are Mom, Mommy, & Me, Jacob Wears A Dress, Daddy, Papa & Me, Julian Is A Mermaid, Love Makes A Family, and so, so many more. Fill your library with the diversity of our world.
Encourage pretend play and dress-up explorations by all students. That means boys can try on dress-up princess outfits, heels, and sparklers. Girls can decide to be the daddy in the family. Address bullying, “that’s for girls”, and “only boys do” immediately. This is the time for kids to explore the world; exploring roles is part of that. I frequently mix dress-up clothes into the blocks area, or trucks/cars/etc into the pretend kitchen area. It helps prevent gendered use of these centers and encourages imaginative thinking.
Model using different pronouns, including the singular they. This is one I find myself still working on. If I am reading a story with a character whose gender is unknown — even when it’s a lion or a sheep, I catch myself automatically referring to them as he. What? Why is he the default? That’s our conditioning, but I’m determined not to pass that pattern on. I practice using they for unknown gender, as well as using she much more often, too. I’ve started practicing before we read-aloud a book, even if it’s a book I’ve read a million times, because practice breaks that habit. I also have started modeling different pronouns when we’re playing with puppets and people.
Be thoughtful if considering pronouns as a speech-language objective. Pronouns are a common language target in early childhood special education, but I think we need to be really careful about how we address this. Too often, it consists of looking at pictures and practicing he/she. This heavily reinforces the idea that we can determine someone’s gender by looking at a picture, as well as using stereotyped images to do so (e.g., long hair is girl). When possible, I recommend using pictures of familiar people whose pronouns you do know for sure, as well as embedding practice throughout the day. I also recommend teaching “they”. You can use books to support this, such as the awesome What Are Your Words? which also has a teaching guide.
Make it normal. Don’t make it exceptional. It’s life. It’s families. It’s who you are. Read books all year long, not just in June. Talk about pronouns in the beginning of the year. Incorporate pictures of different families when you talk about the farm, or holidays, or Spring, not just during a specific family unit. Wear a pin with your pronouns. Add it to your signature line in your school email. Make all of this a normal, every day part of life. Your students will feel seen, heard, and respected all year long. They will also grow into compassionate, accepting human beings, which we always need more of.
Are there other activities that you’ve found to be successful or important in early childhood classrooms? I would love to hear them! Undoing the things we’ve been taught, “the way things have always been”, can take time and practice. I still catch new ways that I’ve been reinforcing the gender binary, even after much reflection. But it’s always, always worth it.
Image Credits: SharonMcCutcheon. (2018, November 13). Human-rights-equality-rainbow-lgbt-3805188 [Photograph]. Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/photos/human-rights-equality-rainbow-lgbt-3805188/