Psychologist helps schools navigate gender and sexuality diversity

By Catherine Robertson Souter
July 1st, 2015

Children learn a lot in school. Reading, writing, math…and how to fit into a social pecking order that may or may not value their individuality. When gender stereotypes and sexual identity come into play, which is in every classroom, every day, says psychologist and educational consultant Jennifer Bryan, Ph.D., children learn lessons about themselves, their peers and the adults around them that may not be the lessons we would like them to learn.

As the founder and principal of Team Finch Consultants in Northampton, Mass., Bryan (along with several experts she brings in) works with schools throughout the U.S. on professional development, parent education and classroom lessons to address issues that, she said, should already be part of the curriculum. Her book, “From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools,” provides a guideline for educators and parents working with children who are, as she says, on the spectrum of gender and sexuality diversity.

Bryan spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her work with schools and educational groups around the topic of sexual identity and gender and diversity and why this information applies to all students.

 Q: What is your main message to educators about gender issues?

A:  It is about understanding spectrums of identity versus boxes of identity and that is the paradigm shift. Instead of saying, he doesn’t fit into the typical “boy” box; we say this is a boy on the spectrum of gender identity. Instead of working with kids who “don’t fit,” we work with them how they are and accept the diverse array of how boys are and how girls are – because that is who we are as a species.

This construct I use, gender and sexuality diversity, is really liberating and helpful to educators because it is about spectrums. It recognizes that these are essential parts of who we all are, not just LGBTQ people. Everybody has a gender identity, a biological sex, a sexual identity, and addressing these parts of identity is developmentally appropriate from pre-K through 12.

We need to broaden this paradigm and help educators think about everybody with this broader framework so it is not, “here are the healthy normal children and here is this special population.” They are all on the same spectrum. It doesn’t mean that the gay kids do not need some kind of attention but we are missing a whole host of kids who are profoundly impacted by gender role stereotypes and sexism and homophobia.

Q:  You talk about how teachers already address normal childhood development and if we leave gender identity out of this discussion, we are missing a big piece.
A: These are essential parts of who we all are and to say that we are going to talk about healthy identity development for pre-K through 12 children and adolescence but somehow leave out gender identity doesn’t make any sense. All of the stereotypes around gender and sexuality are very disruptive for classrooms and recess and friendships so it is not as though you are importing some topic that is irrelevant to what goes on in school every day. This is what happens every day in the dress up corner or at snack time or at the coat rack.

Q: Are more schools reaching out to you because they are seeing more within and around their communities and in the news?
A: There is certainly a lot more attention being paid to issues of sex and gender and sexuality. Some of the attention is quite thoughtful, some of it is alarmist. It is very contextual: Where are we? What school is this? What community is this? What part of the country are we in?

I have certainly gotten more inquiries from pre-K to 6 schools in the last five or six years because there is now more recognition if you want kids to arrive in middle school with greater understanding and skills, you can’t start the conversation in seventh grade.

Q:  Are there differences in the location or types of schools that reach out to you?

A: I have to say, most of my clients are private schools. The work I do in public schools is often in reaction to some kind of incident. I know it is not just about the money because I offer to do pro bono work with public schools. It is not just about funding. It’s about freedom to say this is a priority.

In terms of different parts of the country, I have just come back from working in the Pacific Northwest and in the Chicago area and I will be working next with a group from the Southwest but my phone is not ringing with inquiries from the South.

It is not that there are not educators in those parts of the country who want to better understand this and do right by students and families in their communities but the bureaucracy does not make that easy. And there are many folks still in denial about what this is and who this is.

Q:  Are things getting better? It seems that there is so much more conversation and there are more role models out there but also certain restrictive views have become more prevalent.
A: It’s one of those times contradictory things can be both true. Things are better and things are still really bad. A kid can look around and see mirrored images of diverse gender and diverse sexualities and there are role models and there are gay and lesbian families who are part of communities. So, in that regard, it is definitely much better.

But, if you look at states where same sex marriage is currently legal, in some of those states, you can still be fired or denied housing for being gay. We are in such a contradictory place as a society; it is hard to say this is how it is now.

The sensational is newsworthy but it does not do justice to the complexity of the times we are in.  Seventy million people watched the Jenner interview and that to me is not just about voyeurism. There are people who are generally interested in what this is and what it means.

For me, it’s kind of exciting that things are so dynamic and other days it’s like “oh my gosh, could we just stand still for more than a month?” Talk about needing to stay current. I constantly have to read and stay on top of the latest information.

Q:  Are teachers open to this information?

A:  Teachers are so hungry for help. It lets them deal with whoever is coming through the door. Those are their students, their families. Teacher education programs are not adequately training teachers so when someone like me comes along with these resources, they are so relieved, so grateful.

Q:  How can psychologists help?

A:  Frequently, schools are looking for an outside provider for help and there is no cookie cutter protocol so the psychologist working with the kid and the family in the community is an incredibly important resource. Someday, there may be protocols at the ready but right now people are looking to settle these issues in courts first. But what may be legally binding is not always the best psychological approach.

Where we are as a culture is about balancing the contradictory place that we are in. As psychologists, that is what we do best. We help people understand the complexity of the human spirit and the complexity of groups and the complexity of families. 

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