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Gender equality in the preschool classroom

  • 1.  Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-02-2017 09:09 AM
    I'm just curious as a preschool leader, in recent years the term, "Gender equality" has surfaced in the classroom. 

    I've gone to a workshop, where the presenter stressed that adults should not refer to children by their sex allocation, she cautioned the audience "Not to assign your ideas of a child based on sex."

    She went on to say that people should cease dressing children in sex assigned colors, as in pink is for girls and blue is for boys.
    I'm very curious to know what others think...

    1. How do teachers insure that classrooms are gender balanced besides toys?
    2. How does bath room routines for  young children create a gender balanced experience?
    3. Is there a such thing as gender neutral?
    4. Is this even a topic that we should concern ourselves with at this early stage of children's development?


    Avonne Abnathya-Muhammad, M.A. Educational Leadership
    (862)763-8978 Cell

    "We are what we repeatedly do....Excellence therefore is not an act but a habit."

  • 2.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-03-2017 09:49 AM
    Good morning Avonne,

    I hope I have some useful answers for your questions.

    1. How do teachers insure that classrooms are gender balanced besides toys?
    The first step is recognizing that gender bias exists.  Many people are unaware of how bias permeates our language and therefore our expectations.
    For example many starting teachers automatically begin addressing children as "boys and girls," always putting the boys verbally first, or "you guys," which also preferences males since its two meanings are a grown human male and a member of the human race.  Similar to our use of "man" to refer to all beings instead of "human."
    Being sensitive of how you are using language to address children is very important.  Even switching "boys and girls" to "girls and boys" every other time gives females and males equal billing.  I also would recommend referring to the children as "children" or "explorers" or "scientists" or "firefighters" depending on what they are playing.
    Note: I said "firefighters" instead of "firemen."  Expand this to include any job title that has "men" in it ex. policemen to police officers.

    Aside from being hyper aware of your language I would also recommend having as many non-stereotypical visitors to the classroom as possible, for example female firefighter or male nurse.  If you can find some community members who represent a variety of ethnic compositions representing the classroom and city they should also be invited to share something interesting about what they do and how it is valuable.  An authentic example of this is inviting a family member of each child to share something they are good at doing.  This could be about their job or about how awesome they are at cooking, making origami, jumping rope, etc.  You don't want to put your own expectations and stereotypes on what a certain ethnic group member "should" be able to do (ex. the Japanese family should be able to demonstrate origami.  Perhaps the uncle of that family comes in to show how he sews for a living.)

    You should also have documentation from these classroom experiences available for families to look at with their children.  Write it up in a story-like fashion using the more gender neutral terms.

    2. How does bath room routines for  young children create a gender balanced experience?

    In my experience children are very interested in toileting, especially when they get better control of their muscles and can execute a good bowel movement flawlessly.  This usually occurs in the 3-year-old classroom.  I have seen children examine each others "poops" and provide feedback on size, color and consistency.  They also start to experiment with anatomical humor at this age.  I recommend an adult always be close at hand when multiple children are using a bathroom to shape and respond to the inevitable talk about body parts.
    At this age having an adult nearby will also stop any creative ideas of other things to flush down a toilet and the proper way to overflow a sink.
    You will also have some families that do not want their child sharing a bathroom with others.  In this instance I do my best to honor the family's preference.

    3. Is there a such thing as gender neutral?
    While American society is becoming more aware of gender equality we are not there yet.  Children will be bombarded by stereotypes on a daily basis.  Our goal is to disrupt these ideas enough that children can see alternate futures for themselves and also that they will move the society closer to equal as they grow and become the adult authorities.
    I don't believe gender neutral is possible even in the most careful of classrooms because humans like to pick an exemplar of how they should be and then begin to mimic those behaviors.  The exemplar can be the teacher but it can also be adults outside of school who I can guarantee will have their own beliefs about gender.  Children will then rehearse their roles in school which are influenced by their exemplar.

    4. Is this even a topic that we should concern ourselves with at this early stage of children's development?
    I believe that providing many competent, kind examples of how humans should treat each other is a fundamental goal of socialization beginning in infancy.

    Lillian McFarlin, PhD

    Lillian McFarlin
    East Lansing MI

  • 3.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-04-2017 12:00 PM
    Thank you all,  Lillian, Margaret, Dale and Lydia,

    You've all given me some great feedback.
    Regarding,  the question posed to me about how my views of gender shaped my ideas on growing up, well, firstly,  the identity of how I dress is very much associated with the concept of being a woman. Wearing pocketbooks, jewelry and the ways I've worn my hair, even make up.

    Being able to foster discussions around this topic does have alot to do with my idea of gender. I do think it should be handled with the deepest compassion and respect. Educators have to be able to teach others because the world is vastly different from when I was growing up in the mid 60s, there are so many ideas on sexuality that create some discomfort for me, but I'm trying to understand because growing happy, healthy children who are physically,  emotionally and  psychologically stable people is extremely important.  I'll continue to ponder these ideas and your responses.

    Thank you all.

    Avonne Abnathya-Muhammad
    Avonne Abnathya
    Bloomfield NJ

  • 4.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-03-2017 10:08 AM
    I'm so glad you raised this question Avonne.  I think it's a very important one.
    I do think we need to pay attention to the way we talk about gender with pre-school aged children.
    I think this for 3 reasons.
    1. Pre-school aged children are tremendously vulnerable to stereotypes.
    2. Pre-schoolers are paying close attention to what categories adults think are important.
    3. Many transgender people report that they knew they were transgender by age 4 or 5, even though they often didn't have the words to communicate this to the adults who cared about them.

    Because 3-8 year olds are developmentally focused on categorizing things, they are extremely vulnerable to picking up stereotypes from adults around them.  A stereotype is just a category that is incorrect or overly broad, but it has the potential to harm children for the rest of their lives.  If children aren't able to think through the stereotypes they are exposed to, they are at risk of carrying those stereotypes throughout their lives, often unconsciously, using them to shape their view of themselves and others. The stereotype impacts their acceptance of themselves and their treatment of others.   Also, as children categorize things, they pay careful attention to which categories adults think are most important.  This is especially true of the way adults categorize people- since children are oriented towards learning social skills and building relationships.  When we use gender as a way to sort children, especially when we do it for tasks unrelated to gender (all the girls can line up to go outside now), we are telling children that this is an especially important category, which seems to communicate to them that they should pay a lot of attention to this category.  This can mean that they try especially hard to fit into the gender stereotypes they are exposed to- even to the point of giving up activities and toys they enjoy because "girls are supposed to like princesses, not trucks" or "boys aren't supposed to show emotions other than anger".
    Sorting by gender also creates a heartbreaking challenge for kids who don't feel they fit the gender identity they have been assigned.  When families and early childhood settings are set up so that gender isn't especially important then transgender and gender non conforming children are gifted with extra years to figure out how to interact with the world.  But if gender shapes everything from when you get in line for lunch, to who you play with to what you are supposed to wear and what you get praised for then children who aren't sure where they fit in are forced to make constant, difficult choices.   If gender isn't an especially important part of the early childhood experience then children have more years to sort out the complexities of their own gender identity and how it fits with the stereotypes they've been exposed to.
    Can you think of ways that the ideas about gender you were given shaped your life and life choices?

    [Meg] [Thomas]
    [Early childhood consultant
    [St Paul ] [MN]

  • 5.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-03-2017 02:00 PM
    Do I think it's important to be  conscious of how we are promoting young children's views of gender? Yes I do.

    As with promoting other forms of diversity, the BEST strategy to make sure that children are not being given a stereotyped view of gender is to HIRE people of different genders; meaning, in the case of early childhood programs, making sure to recruit male teachers, since we are so under-represented.  And then of course, making sure that the staff are sharing or rotating tasks and activities including sweeping up, sponging off tables, tying shoes, leading arts/crafts, cooking/food prep, leading physical/motor activities, comforting hurt feelings, music/movement, being in charge of circle/group time, and so forth.  Children will assimilate the concept that there are no pre-defined boxes that they have to fit in, according to their gender.

    Even if you don't have a mixed-gender staff, you can go out of your way to immerse both boys and girls in activities that challenge the lines of gender conformity. Girls love hammering nails. Boys love trying on high heeled shoes. You'd be surprised how much that "quiet passive, compliant girl" will enjoy playing the "big bad wolf" in acting out the 3 Pigs. Give her permission, and she will be louder than you ever expected when it comes time to "HUFF AND PUFF AND BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN!"

    i also like to find ways to have fun completely blurring the lines of gender.  I recall playing "barbershop" and letting four year old children take turns giving haircuts and "shaving" each other.  "Shaving" meant putting shaving cream on the customer's face, then gently washing if off with a damp paper towel dipped in a basin of warm water. They were very gentle with each other. It was wonderful social and sensory play. And who cares which ones would or would not ever grow up to actually need to shave?

    Dale Fink
    Dale Fink
    Williamstown MA

  • 6.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-03-2017 02:49 PM

    I love all the responses to this topic!  Instead of reiterating what's been said, I'll just add a couple of additional thoughts:
    With bathrooms comes discussions about genitals.  It is extremely important, as educators, that we are using proper terminology for body parts (i.e. vulva and penis).  I'd just like to throw out the suggestion that we incorporate the word "most" into these conversations (as in - "most girls have a vulva," and "most boys have a penis"). This sets the framework for later conversations and understanding about the vastly diverse world we live in.

    The importance of making sure we are conscious of gender issues at this age is because children are soaking it all in. We know that toddlers and preschoolers love to sort, to put things in categories. That's part of how they process the world around them.  Gendering each other is simply another way that they categorize. So we'll hear, "You can't play with that! Dresses are for girls!" There are options for the directions adults can take at this point: "you're right, dresses are just for girls," or, "actually, anybody can wear anything, but let's explore this more..." and use it as an emergent project on different types of clothing (including kilts, togas, Lungis, etc.).

    Most experts agree that children have a pretty set view of their own gender by age 3.  Then, until about 7, their views of what that gender means is pretty rigid. This is an important part of sexual development, which we too often - as early childhood educators - ignore. Usually this is due purely to our own discomfort with the topic, or unsure what we are and are not "allowed" to say. So it's good to research and learn about the stages of young children's sexual development, but in the mean time focus on creating an environment in which all children are welcome and equally able to explore materials and toys.

    Lydia M. Bowers
    Sexual Health Educator
    NAEYC Affiliate Advisory Council
    Cincinnati, Ohio

  • 7.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-05-2017 07:47 AM
    This is an incredibly important topic and I am glad to see people talking and thinking about it in a sensitive manner. However, people tend to confuse the terms gender and sex. One's sex is based strictly on genitalia. The male genitalia is a penis, the female the vagina. Sexual preference is based on which type of genitalia a person prefers to have sexual relations with. (This is the simplified version, it's more complicated than that.) One's gender is based more on the psychological/emotional aspect of how one feels about their sexual identity. (Again, I'm over simplifying for the sake of this discussion.) Gender identity is not binary. Gender neutral refers to identifying as neither male nor female. Gender fluid refers to identifying as being more than one gender. The young child who has male genitalia and sometimes dresses in traditionally female clothing may identify as gender neutral, gender fluid, transgender (a male in a female body or vice versa), a male who just happens to like female clothing, or there may be no reason. The bottom line is young children most often have a sense of their own gender identity by around three years but they don't have the conceptual understanding nor the vocabulary to express it. Our job is to support them without judgment and without pressure to conform to our own notions on how they should identify and behave.

    Deborah Abelman
    Watertown MA

  • 8.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-06-2017 07:57 AM
    Thank you Deborah for your feedback.  

    This topic is of great interest to me. Regarding gender neutral,  I was wondering if a classroom can be gender neutral and be able to support children's sexual identity in a way that leaves gender labels out of the classroom. 

    For instance a girl falls down and gets hurt,  she cries. Does the adult then say,  "Laurie,  is crying because ____ fell, " I'm wondering how adults will fill in the blank....or should the pronoun only be used when the child says it? Would we say,
     " Laurie fell and is crying?" 

    Also many 3s don't always understand boy/girl,  so at times they may not really use those labels accurately.  They are emerging learners,  even language is challenging for them,  concepts of gender seem very distant and then add to that idea,  sexual preference,  that's a concept that seems even further removed from a 3 yr old mind. 

    As educators,  should we discourage what is considered - "proper" use of pronouns?  

    I've seen classrooms where male's, are treated as "bad", I even observed once where a teacher scolded an African American male child based only on what the African American girl said, the teacher who was white,  believed the girl child who claimed the boy was staring at her. This incident started my wheels turning around race and gender in preschool.

    I did speak with the teacher in private and shared my observation and told her there was no incident of staring and asked that she become more aware of how she addresses an issue with the opposite sex. I believe that many women confuse gender with behavior,  because in this case I witnessed a boy being scolded based only on a girls idea that he was staring at her and a teacher who believed her not having the benefit of having observed the children as I had, there was no staring.  I thought how wrong that was for the girl child to instantly be believed and I wondered,  how many more instances of this type happens in that room? In this instance,  I really thought that the teachers idea of race and gender played a role in how she identified "conflict."

    I think there is a lot of gender - race discrimination in young classrooms because there is a pre existing notion that black boys are  "bad." Girls have to be "rescued."  I don't believe that it is always conscious  or intentional on the part of adults but it is happening because it's part of our socialization.  So this topic really became significant for me when I witnessed this classroom event. 

  • 9.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-07-2017 12:43 PM
    Avonne - There is no easy answer to your questions about being gender neutral in the classroom. In terms of using pronouns, for an adult, I ask the person's preference. Young children do not have enough of an understanding about pronouns to be able to know or even have a preference. "Laurie fell and is crying." is a better response than "Laurie is crying because ___ fell." for more than one reason. For one, you avoid the uncertainty of gender identification. You also avoid making assumptions. Laurie may not be crying because of falling. It may be that a toy was taken from Laurie just before the fall and that's the true cause of the crying. Furthermore "Laurie fell and is crying." is a much simpler, more precise and concise sentence, which is what we want in promoting early language development.

    You can't totally cut out the use of gender based pronouns, particularly since it's still so prevalent in our society. You can, however, have conversations about gender and the use of pronouns with preschool-age children. You can talk about boys and girls and the proper pronoun for each ("We use 'he' when we're talking about a boy, and 'she' when we're talking about a girl.) In that conversation you can talk about how some people may look like a boy or girl on the outside, but on the inside they don't feel like a boy or a girl. You can talk about how people who don't feel how they look sometimes like to use the pronoun they or another pronoun and if we're not sure we can always ask.

    You have to be careful, however, that before you have these types of conversations with children that you have a conversation with your supervisor first and then with parents. Not everyone feels open and/or comfortable about this topic.

    The incident you referred to about the "bad" African-American male child is really more about race and the perception of African-Americans by non-African-Americans in our society. We have a long way to go when it comes to truly accepting persons who are different from outselves.

    Deborah Abelman
    Watertown MA

  • 10.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-08-2017 01:59 PM

    Thank you for adding to this discussion.  I do agree about using pronouns, I can't see a way around it.

    And I agree also about the race aspect of your response to my observation. The country has a long way to go. 

  • 11.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-06-2017 02:21 PM
    Hello Avonne,
    As I think children are curious about every thing. May be their gender curiosity is we keep our body covered. I have seen even if you provide young children dolls with clothing, very often they will pull them out before start play.When I work with children, keep my eyes and ears wide open , but don't let them feel it. When they are supposed to go to bath I name two girls, then two boys. If I have to send a girl and a boy, I just go in with them and pretend I have to do some thing there.
    There are times they try to play girls only and boys only. I try to include both genders, but if they refused we will create something new for the children who were not accepted.
    On the other hand we often talk about how we are different from each other and but we share . They will grow up with gender curiosity, as we did. When they grow they will learn more.
    We do more discussion  at circle time too.I take it easy and think we all had gone through those.

    Kusuma Udagedera
    Silver Spring MD

  • 12.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-09-2017 10:08 PM

    I would like to add one more thought to this excellent discussion. All children, all children (all!) are injured when we allow gender stereotyping to go unchallenged in our programs or, even more commonly, when we reinforce gender stereotyping. Children are growing up in a world of confusing and limiting idea about what it means to be a boy or to be a girl. (The biggest of which is the notion that these are fixed identities!)

    The messages children hear and see, over and over, are both overt and covert. "Boys are competitive, destructive, not empathetic, don't cry, play rough, aren't artistic, are physically strong, are important, are loud, are fearless (or at least quickly overcome any fear they may experience), are physical problem solvers, think logically, etc. etc. etc." "Girls are helpful, are caregivers, are artistic, like words and books and art, get hurt easily (both physically and emotionally), whine, cry, are focused upon their appearance (including clothing, colors, hair styles, etc.), think creatively, are focused on relationships, etc. etc. etc."

    Each of these assumptions about a child function to limit their development, closing down whole aspects of their personhood in ways that impact the rest of their lives. As children's advocates, it is our responsibility not to reinforce these limiting ideas and to find age-appropriate ways to contradict them and give children more options to be fully human rather than conforming to our society's limited ideas of being either "boy or girl".

    Julie Edwards
    Soquel CA

  • 13.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-11-2017 11:37 AM
    This is a very interesting discussion. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and ideas.

    Some of the teachers I have worked with in coaching or training capacities have a negative view of boys in the classroom. I have heard teachers say to me or to other teachers: "You're so lucky to have so many girls in your class. I'm stuck with a classroom full of boys this year!". I have responded:  "I'm a male. What's wrong with boys in the classroom?".

    The responses have been enlightening. Boys are seen as being more likely to "get into stuff" (show curiosity), "not listen to the teacher" (show independence), and "see what they can get away with" (testing limits and showing initiative). These teachers described girls in the classroom as being calm and listening without interrupting (passivity) and following directions and doing what they are told to do (conformity). In these discussions, I have suggested to the teachers that the behaviors they describe for boys in the classroom are precursors of many of the behaviors that are associated with "success" in the capitalist work culture while the behaviors they value in their classroom in girls are more likely to be associated with disadvantages in the adult workplace. I even discussed with teachers ways to encourage more of these "challenging behaviors" in the girls in their preschool classrooms.

    Ultimately, we need to strike a balance where both boys and girls are equally encouraged to show curiosity, independence and initiative in the classroom as well as to develop a healthy respect for teachers and peers in order to communicate, collaborate, and support each other as an effective community of learners. It is worrisome to see teachers' gendered behavior expectations in preschool lay the groundwork for or reinforce the culturally influenced behaviors that contribute to gender inequality in the adult workforce.

    Jared Lisonbee
    Salt Lake City UT

  • 14.  RE: Gender equality in the preschool classroom

    Posted 08-14-2017 11:28 AM
    Jared, thanks for your insightful comments.

    You have accurately noted to your colleagues that there are positive ways of  framing the behaviors some of them have been disparaging in young boys. (And of course, some girls similarly "get into stuff," are defiant and noncompliant, and physically restless.)  I used to give a workshop titled, "Let's Get Rambunctious!"  It was my way of helping early childhood educators generate constructive ways to tap into the behaviors that they too often tend to stigmatize.   We practiced physically active circle-time games, voice-control games in which we went from quiet to VERY LOUD and back again, talked about different forms of rough-and-tumble play, such as tossing nerf balls at one another.  (I credit my thinking on the latter topic to Rick Porter from Southern California.)


    Dale Fink
    Williamstown MA