How to Talk to School Staff and Parents About Gender Identity

School counselors wear many hats and play a multitude of roles in the academic, social and emotional growth of their students. One of their roles can be to help dispel myths and misconceptions about student experiences; this is especially pertinent in conversations surrounding students' gender identity.

The topic of gender identity is frequently misunderstood, among both adults and children, especially in school environments. Because school counselors often play a neutral, informed and nonpolitical role in the schools, they can deliver critical and objective psychoeducation to staff, parents and students.

Here, we'll take a look at some frequently asked misconceptions that school counselors may receive from parents or school staff about the topic of gender identity, as well as strategies on how to shape these conversations. 


 Shouldn’t students be learning about gender identity at home instead of school?

Both home and school are appropriate places for young students to be taught to respect differences, cooperate to accomplish good and protect each other from bullying. Providing gender-inclusive education is an example of how schools teach children to not judge others based on race, sexuality, identity, family type, class or religion. Schools are ethically and legally obligated to protect their students from harassment. Teaching students about gender identity is a step toward further-offering this protection.


 Are my students too young to learn about gender identity?

While a seven-year-old student may not understand the terms "cisgender" or "binary," they are not too young to understand a person's desire to express their true selves. Young children have more flexible thinking than older adults or children; they explore and learn new things about the world every day. 

Regardless, children receive potent lessons about gender every day, whether or not they're explicit. They might be encouraged to play differently or have different interests based on their gender, and many of these stereotypes limit all children when it comes to their thoughts, talents and passions.


 Should conversations about gender identity wait until sex ed class?

It is a common misconception to conflate gender identity with sexual orientation. Gender identity is an expression of where a person feels they belong on the gender spectrum, while sexual orientation relates to their sexual or romantic desires. Anatomy does not necessarily need to be brought up when discussing gender. Instead, focus on gender identity as how people feel and think about themselves. 


 Should this conversation wait until it relates to a student in my classroom?

Individual students should never be used as teachable moments. This singles out the student and eliminates their right to privacy. Instead, school counselors can work with school librarians to find stories about gender identity that can be used as conversational tools. Schools may have transgender or genderqueer students without knowing it. Students may wish to keep their gender identity private, or they may still be figuring out how they want to identify.  By creating an inclusive space, schools pave the way for current and future students to feel welcomed.


 How can I talk to my staff and classroom about using a student's preferred gender pronouns?

Encourage students to use the correct pronouns just as you would encourage them to know and remember their classmates' names. Pronouns can be as valuable to a student's identity as their name. School counselors can also educate school leadership about how to set a powerful example by addressing students with their preferred pronouns and their chosen name, even at a big school. These small adjustments can make a huge difference in a school’s environment. 

Schools are adapting and evolving, as is the language we use. A growing number of students identify outside the traditional gender binary,  so they may feel comfortable using the pronouns associated with their gender, or with gender-neutral pronouns. Gender neutral pronouns include they, them, their, ze, hir, and hirs.


Additional Resources

There are multiple ways for school counselors to disseminate information about gender identity to parents, school staff and students. A simple pamphlet or information sheet can make information readily available, or counselors can volunteer to give an information session or in-service to interested staff or parents. Above all, students should feel comfortable walking into a counselor’s office, knowing that all aspects of their identity will be affirmed and celebrated. Consider today how you can dispel myths about gender identity and build an informed and welcoming community at your school.

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Citation for this content: USC Rossier’s online masters in school counseling program.