Supporting Transgender Students to Thrive in their Schooling by Cathy Cooper
School attendance is compulsory in Aotearoa New Zealand for all students aged six to sixteen years. Most children start school on their fifth birthday and many remain until the end of Year 13 when they tend to be aged seventeen or eighteen years (Ministry of Education, 2017). The vision of Aotearoa New Zealand’s National Curriculum is of young people developing the competencies they need for study, work, and lifelong learning, so they may go on to realise their highest potential (http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz, 2016).
For many young people, attending school is a positive experience where they engage with the curriculum, forge strong friendships with peers and develop trusting associations with educators. Research has shown however that young people whose gender identity does not match their biological sex or their birth-assigned gender tend to have less positive experiences at school. (Toomey, Ryan and Diaz, 2013). These students, who identify as transgender, are more likely to experience harassment, discrimination and marginalisation throughout their education (Leaske, 2015).
Aotearoa New Zealand’s first national survey of transgender secondary school students’ health and well-being found that one in five transgender students reported receiving intentional physical or verbal bullying at their school on a weekly or more frequent basis (Clark, Lucassen and Bullen, 2014). This figure was five times higher than bullying reported by students who identified as heterosexual. In addition, more than 50% of transgender students surveyed by Clark et al reported feeling frightened of being the victim of physical or verbal bullying at school. Bullying, which included the above-mentioned harassment, discrimination and marginalisation, was found to be responsible for the increased risk of negative academic outcomes for students identifying as transgender when compared with young people identifying as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or intersex (Clark et al, 2014). Clark et al strongly recommended that educators address the challenging environments students identifying as transgender face, and increase their access to responsive services (2014).
This recommendation was taken seriously. The Ministry of Education in Aotearoa New Zealand developed provisions for the delivery of a supportive and safe environment for transgender students equal to that of students identifying with other gender identities or sexual orientations. The Ministry’s Te Kete Ipurangi website (2018) made available a detailed and informative guide entitled Supporting LGBTIQA+ students which firstly outlines the responsibilities schools hold in supporting the inclusion and wellbeing of students who identify as sex, gender, or sexuality diverse. The guide then provides a wealth of practical strategies and suggestions for supporting these students through a variety of initiatives that acknowledge, value, and respect the diversity that exists within each school. In brief, these consist of:
Understanding sex, gender, and sexuality diversity which includes definitions, pronouns to use, and shares student experiences; Creating inclusive school-wide systems and processes which includes managing bullying, following policies and procedures, and educator professional learning and support; Addressing immediate environmental, physical, and social needs which includes the provision of appropriate changing rooms, safe spaces, and gender neutral toilets and uniforms; and Developing an inclusive classroom and curriculum which includes information on educating students on gender and sexuality, gender roles, using diversity-affirming language and increasing visibility.
At all times, the onus is on schools to implement and maintain these strategies with the support of the Ministry. In my opinion, this guide is an excellent initiative which provides a wealth of knowledge and resources for educators. It ticks all the boxes in regard to the recommendation from Clark et al (2014) and other researchers looking at the extra support needs of students who identify as transgender: the need for educators to have the knowledge, skills, and competence to support these students in schools so they may thrive as equally with students who identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and intersex. I highly recommend this guide to all who work with young people identifying as transgender, as well as those who simply wish to upskill their knowledge and understanding of best practice in this domain.
Clark, T.C., Lucassen, M.F.G., Bullen, P., Denny, S.J., Fleming, T.M., Robinson, E.M. & Rossen, F.V. (2014). The Health and Well-Being of Transgender High School Students: Results from the New Zealand Adolescent Health Survey (Youth'12). Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(1), 93-99.
Leaske, A. (2 July 2015). ‘Details of trans discrimination in NZ revealed’, Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11474211
Ministry of Education Te Tāhuhu o te Māturanga (2017). Education in New Zealand. Retrieved from https://education.govt.nz/ministry-of-education/our-role-and-our-people/education-in-nz
Te Kete Ipurangi (2016). The New Zealand Curriculum. Retrieved from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/The-New-Zealand-Curriculum
Te Kete Ipurangi (2018). Inclusive Guides for Schools: Supporting LGBTIQA+ Students. Retrieved from http://inclusive.tki.org.nz/guides/lgbtiqa/
Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., Diaz, R. M., Card, N. A., & Russell, S. T. (2013). Gender-Nonconforming Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: School Victimization and Young Adult Psychosocial Adjustment. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 46(6), 1580-1589. Original work published in Developmental Psychology, 2010).