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On its website (, the American Montessori
Society lists six values that guide its work. In this essay,
we touch upon at least three of those values (inclusive-
ness, diversity, and respect) as we oer suggestions on
incorporating gender diversity into an already existing
framework of inclusivity, in order to create a safe and
arming space for children. We understand gender
diversity as the notion that issues of diversity should
include gender in all its variations, and gender inclu-
sivity as the idea that all gender identities and ex-
pressions should be validated and included. We are a
communication scholar who studies gender identity
and rhetoric (Charles) and an activist for transgender
people and parent of a transgender child (Hillary).
Given our backgrounds and experience, we hope to
provide best practices and resources to help Mon-
tessorians navigate the sometimes confusing road to
gender inclusivity. We follow the path put forth by
AMS executive director Richard Ungerer, who wrote,
in 2013, about preparing Montessori teachers (and
administrators) for a more diverse world and for “cel-
ebrating diversity and dierences as positives rather
than challenges to overcome” (p. 3).
e purpose of this essay is not simply to help those
students who may be experiencing a transgender iden-
tity but also to help educators and all students begin
the process of communicating and interacting in ways
that will make other students comfortable with their
own identities and with alternative understandings of
gender. In what follows, we rst discuss the concept
of allowing children to be their authentic selves. Next,
we oer some communicative tools to foster a sense of
inclusivity and armation. en we consider policy
concerns, especially regarding bathroom use and gen-
der-based bullying. And, nally, we suggest schools
revisit the language of their policies.
e term transgender is an umbrella term to describe in-
dividuals whose sense of gender identity and expression
does not correspond with their biological sex assigned
at birth. Being transgender is like any other human vari-
ance or genetic dierence (skin color, eye color, color
blindness, etc.), yet this dierence has unimaginable
repercussions and is accompanied by alarming statistics.
Based largely on common misunderstandings and deeply
rooted religious beliefs, gender-nonconforming people
have been targeted, discriminated against, and victimized
around the world for decades. A 2012 study found that
41% of transgender individuals have aempted suicide
due to lack of societal acceptance, a staggering number
when compared to a 1.6% aempted suicide rate in the
general population (Grant, Moet, Tanis, Harrison, Her-
man & Keisling, 2012). is rate rises to 51% for those
who indicated they were harassed or bullied at school
(and 78% of study participants reported they were ha-
rassed at school) (Grant et al., 2012). Many transgender
youth are shamed, abused, and kicked out of their family
homes, and some are murdered for being transgender.
Historically, it has been common for parents of gen-
der-nonconforming youth to deny their children’s true
gender identity and force them to live as their birth gender.
Recently, psychologists have put forth a gender-arma-
tive model, which suggests that adults and parents should
follow the lead of children in their gender identity and
expressions (Ehrensa, 2016; Hidalgo, Ehrensa, Tishel-
man, Clark, Garafalo, Rosenthal, Spack & Olson, 2013).
A recent study has backed the gender-armative model by
Gender -
A concept whereby
individuals exist
and act outside of
traditional gender
An umbrella
term to describe
individuals whose
sense of gender
identity and ex-
pression does not
correspond with
their biological sex
assigned at birth.
By Charles Goehring, PhD, and Hillary Whiington
SUMMER 2017 51
showing that youth who have been armed and support-
ed by parents in their gender identity at young ages show
depression and anxiety on equal levels with their peers
(Olson, Durwood, DeMeules & McLaughlin, 2016). Par-
ents who are supportive are doing what is best for their
children. is same support and armation should be
oered in classrooms and on all school grounds.
Next to their homes, school is the place where most
children spend a majority of their time. While sup-
portive parenting is paramount to raising a healthy
child, whether gender-conforming or gender-noncon-
forming, educators are the next step. Educators must
be trained on how to communicate and interact with
children in a compassionate manner. Of course, very
few young children will identify as transgender, gen-
der-nonconforming, or gender variant. Most will be
cisgender, identifying their gender as consistent with
their biological sex.
Many question the ability of young children to
accurately assess their gender identities. However, ac-
cording to experts, the concept of gender constancy—an
individual’s understanding that their assigned sex is
constant and is accompanied by expectations related
to their gender—occurs as early as 3 years old but no
later than 6 years old (Rivers & Barne, 2011). In other
words, children see themselves as a particular gender
(or somewhere in between) at an early age and quick-
ly learn the stereotypes and roles expected of them in
relation to culturally constructed gender norms.
In his essay, “Gender vs. Sex,” Carl (2012) discusses
the oen-unintentional reinforcement of existing gen-
der stereotypes. He notes that children quickly learn and
actively seek to emulate behavior deemed appropriate for
particular genders. We are less concerned with how chil-
dren themselves choose to separate into groups and play
particular games than we are with how educators react
to particular situations. As Powell (2008) notes, “Casual
cross-gender conversations and cooperation in learning,
as well as cross-gender friendships, are commonplace in
the many Montessori classrooms [he] visited” (p. 27).
However, he relates several instances where
adults sometimes mistakenly set boys and girls against
one another in ways that make it hard for them to be
close iends, now and when they get older. One way of
doing this is with competition—“boys against girls.” An-
other more common way is with teasing about “liking”
someone of the other gender.… Too oen this sort of teas-
ing shuts down communication between boys and girls
until hormones take over. (pp. 28–29)
Powell rightly asserts that teachers and administrators
should “never let gender used as a means of separating or
excluding go without comment” (p. 29). For instance,
if a child in the classroom states “pink is for girls,” the
teacher should use the opportunity for a teachable mo-
ment to discuss how colors have been arbitrarily chosen
to represent particular genders.
ese examples are, of course, used within the con-
text of cisgender children who, due to exclusionary
games and gendered language use, tend to fall into a
trap of reinforcing gendered stereotypes. However,
think of the transgender child who is still transition-
ing, and who is immediately uncomfortable when
lessons and play are structured around gendered
groupings. ink to yourself how many times a day
educators line up their students or send them to the
bathroom by gender. ese moments are terrifying for
transgender children.
Aside from trying to avoid several long-held
assumptions regarding gender, one of the best meth-
ods for encouraging diversity and enabling inclusivity
is to shi the very language we use, including some
taken-for-granted norms of speaking.
One of the most dicult, yet most armative, com-
municative modications to make when aiming for
gender inclusivity is the use of pronouns. Despite their
relatively small size (there are few of them compared
with other parts of speech), pronouns are an integral
aspect of the structure of speech (Key, 2014). Upon
rst meeting someone, we typically look for visual cues
regarding the gender of that person and then use gen-
dered pronouns to refer to them. For a transitioning
child, the switch to the correct gendered pronoun is a
profound and validating step, and we have personally
witnessed children completely change their demeanor
when allowed to use the pronouns that best t their
identity. Within the transgender community, it is
common practice to introduce yourself by name, then
to state the pronouns you prefer. While a cisgender
person would likely go along with the pronouns that
match gender identity, such as “she, her, hers” or “he,
him, his,” transgender individuals may prefer pronouns
that match their preferred gender identity but may
opt instead to use the more generalized “they, them,
theirs.” Still others are going further and creating new
pronouns, such as “ze” or “hir” (Key; Teich, 2012).
For the gender-nonconforming child, whose gender
identity may be even more complicated, pronouns are
particularly tricky. Teachers should ask which pronoun
a child prefers. Regardless of whether this student is
A model developed
by Ehrensaft et al.
to denote accep-
tance of a child’s
gender identity.
A term used to
denote individuals
whose gender
identity conforms
to the designated
biological sex
(e.g., A cisgender
male would
identify as male
and be born with
male genitalia.)
cisgender, transgender, or gender-nonconforming, us-
ing preferred pronouns is a sign of respect toward that
child. Teachers having diculty using correct pronouns
may also decide to call each student by their rst name.
In fact, children transitioning into their correct gender
identity oen choose new names that are reective
of their preferred identity or names that are gender-
neutral. If this is the case, teachers should ask what
name the child prefers as well.
According to Grossman and D’Augelli (2006),
“Exhibiting gender-atypical behavior makes trans-
gender youth an especially vulnerable population
(p. 113), and transgender or gender-nonconforming
youth oen face signicant discrimination in schools.
In Grossman & D’Augelli’s study, transgender youth
frequently noted a lack of safe spaces. One of the main
outcomes of this marginalization has been harassment
and outright bullying in school.
Even with the best of intentions, teachers will oen
nd that they fall into predictable gender paerns.
Aer all, we have been raised in rigid cultural condi-
tions that dictate how we act, interact, and behave.
Even when teachers are doing their best to respect
the gender of each student, they should also be aware
of how the students are interacting with one another.
What we accept as “kids being kids” can be extreme-
ly problematic, resulting in what are known as micro-
aggressions—the subtle, everyday communications
that, oen unintentionally, suggest to “a person of a
particular marginalized group that who they are is not
acceptable” (Ehrensa, p. 131). Children may ques-
tion transgender or gender-nonconforming students
about a variety of issues. For instance, students may
ask transgender peers if they used to be a dierent sex
or what their names used to be. ese questions may
continue despite the child’s protestations.
Teachers and even parents of transgender children
may also fall victim to these subtle nonverbal and ver-
bal interactions. Even one mishandled situation could
be detrimental to a child’s mental health and future
acceptance among their peers. All interactions must
be handled with utmost care, using carefully selected
language, to ensure a child is protected from being “out-
ed” or taunted for their authentic gender identity. Slip-
ups do occur, even among those who are well-trained
and knowledgeable regarding gender. Acknowledging
the mistake and oering a quick apology can go a long
way toward showing students the support they need.
When these interactions move into more intense (and
oen intentional) harassment, they enter the realm of
gender-based bullying. In many cases, bullying is not
reported by transgender students, and if it is report-
ed, oen nothing is done to address the wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, this sends a message to the student
population that bullying a transgender peer is accept-
able behavior. is aitude also worsens the isolation
and depression many transgender students experience.
Students who are physically and/or verbally bullied at
school show increased anxiety about school, which may
lead them to skip classes, resulting in poor academic
performance (Singh & Jackson, 2012).
School administrators should take immediate action
if they become aware of any form of bullying, especially
if it concerns a transgender student. Schools must adopt
a zero tolerance for bullying policy and encourage re-
spect toward all dierences. Additionally, schools should
oer a safe place where a student can always retreat if
something inappropriate occurs. For instance, a school
nurse’s oce or an administrator’s oce can serve as a
“safe zone,” where gender-nonconforming students can
go if they feel threatened or simply need a place to hang
out for a while. Educators and administrators must take
seriously these issues by resolutely condemning any ha-
rassment on the basis of gender and holding accountable
any students who engage in gender-based bullying.
One of the most visible controversies surrounding
transgender rights has been the use of bathrooms. We
suggest that gender-nonconforming children should
always be encouraged to use the bathroom they feel
most comfortable using (Key, 2014). Many states do
not oer legal protections like Californias AB 1266,
which assures transgender students full access to
participate and achieve success in school, including
using the restroom of their gender identity, “regard-
less of their status in ocial school records or their
sex assigned at birth” (Anonymous, 2014). In those
cases without specic protections, administrators
may suggest transgender students use a separate re-
stroom, marked specically as unisex, such as the sta
restroom or nurse’s oce restroom. While this may
seem like an easy compromise, it risks potentially
outing” the student as dierent and is an example of
unfair and unequal treatment.
Given the current political climate, teachers and ad-
ministrators should be prepared for some parents to take
issue with the restroom usage of a transgender student. In
some cases, this is couched as an aront to their cisgender
The idea that all
gender identities
and expressions
should be
validated and
An individual’s
that the assigned
gender is constant
and is accompa-
nied by expecta-
tions related to
that gender; this
occurs as early as
3 years old but
no later than 6
years old (Rivers &
Barnett, 2011).
SUMMER 2017 53
children. Restrooms have been a source of disagreement
among the population who believe being transgender
is a choice. We have seen numerous cases where indi-
viduals have created scare tactics to make it appear that
transgender individuals are predators and should use
the restroom corresponding to the gender listed on their
birth certicates. However, the facts show otherwise:
Most gender-nonconforming and transgender individu-
als are extremely concerned about their privacy, and, to
date, there have been no documented situations in which
transgender individuals have taken advantage of or have
acted inappropriately in the restroom (Percelay, 2015).
Moreover, many transgender youth are so uncomfortable
using the restroom that they withhold the urge during
the school day, and, as a result, develop urinary tract and/
or kidney infections (Brill & Pepper, 2008). Fortunately,
both male and female restrooms are required to have a
private toilet stall, where the user can lock the door and
be alone while they use the facilities, which should ease
many concerns. Regardless, it is important to ask indi-
vidual students what they are most comfortable with and
support them with the option that is best for them.
It is up to Montessori schools to ensure that, along with
sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are
considered protected categories within school nondis-
crimination and antiharassment policy. Without such
policies, schools lack the ability to intervene in dicult
situations. For instance, with a lack of clear guidelines,
a case of gender bullying will likely result in interven-
tions that are “remedial, reactive, and lack foresight and
intentionality” (Singh & Jackson, p. 177). In regard to
language, are your policies wrien in such a way that
they include, value, and protect transgender and gender-
nonconforming students? Ungerer (2013) urges us to be
mindful of using inclusive language and imagery within
school communications and public relations work.
Of course, there are many additional ways that Mon-
tessori schools can broaden the values of inclusivity,
diversity, and respect to include gender identity. Hold
regular training sessions for educators, administrators,
and counselors on transgender issues and terminology.
Broaden the selection of materials you assign to stu-
dents, such as including books from a growing body of
work that highlight gender-nonconforming themes (see
Suggested Materials for Young Children, at right). Incor-
porating these changes into the Montessori culture and
curricula will increase visibility and set the tone for a safe
and supportive learning environment.
Lest you think implementing these suggestions will aect
only a small minority of students, what we are suggesting
will in fact benet all Montessori students, educators, and
administrators by providing the basis for understanding
gender. Despite a strong desire among educators to be in-
clusive and understanding of gender-nonconformity, the
ability to enact communicative strategies for interaction is
oen dicult. From a practical standpoint, teaching and
practicing diversity and acceptance should alleviate future
problems. It should not be your role to assess the student
or to gure out the causal links to the child’s gender identi-
ty. Instead, consider it your job to be supportive of a child’s
questions and assertions regarding gender.
CHARLES GOEHRING, PhD, is an assistant professor in the School
of Communication at San Diego State University. His research in-
corporates the study of gender and communication and rhetoric.
Contact him at
HILLARY WHITTINGTON is the mother of a transgender child, a trans-
gender rights activist, and the author of Raising Ryland: Our Story
of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached (Harp-
erCollins, 2015). Contact her at
Anonymous. (2014). Transgender youth and access to gendered spaces in education.
Harvard Law Review, 127(6): 1722.
Brill, S. A. & Pepper, R. (2008). e transgender child: A handbook for families and
professionals. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Carl, J. (2012). Gender vs. sex: What’s the dierence? Montessori Life, 24(1), 26–30.
Ehrensa, D. (2016). e gender creative child: Pathways for nurturing and supporting
children who live outside gender boxes. New York: e Experiment.
Grant, J. M., Moet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L. & Keisling, M. (2012).
Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,
Executive Summary. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality
and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Grossman, A. & D’Augelli, A. (2006). Transgender youth: Invisible and vulnerable.
Journal of Homosexuality, 51(1), 111–128.
Hidalgo, M., Ehrensa, D., Tishelman, A., Clark, L., Garofalo, R., Rosenthal, S., Spack, N.
& Olson, J. (2013). e gender armative model: What we know and what we aim
to learn. Human Development, 56(5), 285–290.
Key, A. (2014). Children. In L. Erickson-Schroth (Ed.), Trans bodies, trans selves: A
resource for the transgender community (419–445). New York: Oxford University Press.
Olson, K., Durwood, L., DeMeules, M. & McLaughlin, K. (2016). Mental health of
transgender children who are supported in their identities. Pediatrics, 137(3), 1–8.
Percelay, R. (2015, June 3). 17 school districts debunk right-wing lies about protec-
tions for transgender students. Media Maers for America. www.mediama
Powell, M. (2008). Gender play and good governance. Montessori Life, 20(1), 26–29.
Rivers, C. & Barne, R. (2011). e truth about girls and boys. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Singh, A. & Jackson, K. (2012). CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Queer and transgender
youth: Education and liberation in our schools. Counterpoints, 367, 175–186.
Teich, N. M. (2012). Transgender 101: A simple guide to a complex issue. New York: Co-
lumbia University Press.
Ungerer, R. A. (2013). e role of diversity and inclusion in Montessori education.
Montessori Life, 25(1), 3–7.
Suggested Materials for Young Children
Hall, M. (2015). Red: A crayon’s story. New York: Greenwillow Books.
Herthel, J., Jennings, J. & McNicholas, S. (2014). I am Jazz! New York: Dial Books for
Young Readers.
Hilton, P. & Hill, J. (2011). e boy with pink hair. New York: Penguin/Celebra.
Kilodavis, C. & DeSimone, S. (2011). My princess boy: A mom’s story about a young boy
who loves to dress up. New York: Aladdin.
Parr, T. (2015). It’s okay to be dierent. New York: Scholastic.
The notion that
issues of diversity
should include
gender in all its
variations. While
it is often under-
stood as equal
acceptance, and
fairness for both
men and women,
increasingly it
has expanded to
incorporate gender
variation outside
of a binary.
An individual’s
behavior or gender
expression that
fails to align
with expected or
traditional gender
norms; see also
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
In the summer of 2013, Dr. Jack Drescher published an editorial opinion about gender-nonconforming children in the New York Times in which he stated: ''Cur-rently experts can't tell apart kids who outgrow gender dysphoria (desisters) from those who do not (persisters), and how to treat them is controversial'' [Drescher, 2013, p. 1]. As members of a four-site child gender clinic group, we concur with Dr. Drescher regarding the controversy, but take issue with his assessment of experts and their inability to differentially assess ''persisters'' and ''desisters'' in childhood. We would like to take this opportunity to outline the gender affirmative model from which we practice, dispel myths about this model, and briefly outline the state of knowledge in our field regarding facilitators of healthy psychosocial development in gender-nonconforming children. The major premises informing our modes of prac-tice include: (a) gender variations are not disorders; (b) gender presentations are di-verse and varied across cultures, therefore requiring our cultural sensitivity; (c) to the best of our knowledge at present, gender involves an interweaving of biology, devel-opment and socialization, and culture and context, with all three bearing on any in-dividual's gender self; (d) gender may be fluid, and is not binary, both at a particular time and if and when it changes within an individual across time; (e) if there is pathol-ogy, it more often stems from cultural reactions (e.g., transphobia, homophobia, sex-ism) rather than from within the child. Our goals within this model are to listen to the child and decipher with the help of parents or caregivers what the child is communicating about both gender identity and gender expressions. We define gender identity as the gender the child articulates
Full-text available
This study used three focus groups to explore factors that affect the experiences of youth (ages 15 to 21) who identify as transgender. The focus groups were designed to probe transgender youths' experiences of vulnerability in the areas of health and mental health. This involved their exposure to risks, discrimination, marginalization, and their access to supportive resources. Three themes emerged from an analysis of the groups' conversations. The themes centered on gender identity and gender presentation, sexuality and sexual orientation, and vulnerability and health issues. Most youth reported feeling they were transgender at puberty, and they experienced negative reactions to their gender atypical behaviors, as well as confusion between their gender identity and sexual orientation. Youth noted four problems related to their vulnerability in health-related areas: the lack of safe environments, poor access to physical health services, inadequate resources to address their mental health concerns, and a lack of continuity of caregiving by their families and communities.
Objective: Transgender children who have socially transitioned, that is, who identify as the gender "opposite" their natal sex and are supported to live openly as that gender, are increasingly visible in society, yet we know nothing about their mental health. Previous work with children with gender identity disorder (GID; now termed gender dysphoria) has found remarkably high rates of anxiety and depression in these children. Here we examine, for the first time, mental health in a sample of socially transitioned transgender children. Methods: A community-based national sample of transgender, prepubescent children (n = 73, aged 3-12 years), along with control groups of nontransgender children in the same age range (n = 73 age- and gender-matched community controls; n = 49 sibling of transgender participants), were recruited as part of the TransYouth Project. Parents completed anxiety and depression measures. Results: Transgender children showed no elevations in depression and slightly elevated anxiety relative to population averages. They did not differ from the control groups on depression symptoms and had only marginally higher anxiety symptoms. Conclusions: Socially transitioned transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have developmentally normative levels of depression and only minimal elevations in anxiety, suggesting that psychopathology is not inevitable within this group. Especially striking is the comparison with reports of children with GID; socially transitioned transgender children have notably lower rates of internalizing psychopathology than previously reported among children with GID living as their natal sex.
Transgender youth and access to gendered spaces in education
  • Anonymous
Anonymous. (2014). Transgender youth and access to gendered spaces in education. Harvard Law Review, 127(6): 1722.
The transgender child: A handbook for families and professionals
  • S A Brill
  • R Pepper
Brill, S. A. & Pepper, R. (2008). The transgender child: A handbook for families and professionals. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Gender vs. sex: What's the difference? Montessori Life
  • J Carl
Carl, J. (2012). Gender vs. sex: What's the difference? Montessori Life, 24(1), 26-30.
The gender creative child: Pathways for nurturing and supporting children who live outside gender boxes
  • D Ehrensaft
Ehrensaft, D. (2016). The gender creative child: Pathways for nurturing and supporting children who live outside gender boxes. New York: The Experiment.
Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, Executive Summary
  • J M Grant
  • L A Mottet
  • J Tanis
  • J Harrison
  • J L Herman
  • M Keisling
Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L. & Keisling, M. (2012). Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Trans bodies, trans selves: A resource for the transgender community (419-445)
  • A Key
Key, A. (2014). Children. In L. Erickson-Schroth (Ed.), Trans bodies, trans selves: A resource for the transgender community (419-445). New York: Oxford University Press.
17 school districts debunk right-wing lies about protections for transgender students. Media Matters for America
  • R Percelay
Percelay, R. (2015, June 3). 17 school districts debunk right-wing lies about protections for transgender students. Media Matters for America. research/2015/06/03/17-school-districts-debunk-right-wing-lies-abou/203867.