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  • Writer's pictureLaura Hernandez

Understanding Gender Identity Development in Youth


Navigating the complex world of gender identity development in youth is crucial for educators. This knowledge can help foster nurturing, inclusive classrooms and schools that promote understanding and acceptance.


Gender Identity Vs. Assigned Gender

It is essential to distinguish between the terms "sex" and "gender". "Sex" refers to the physiological characteristics assigned at birth, i.e., male or female. Conversely, "gender identity" is an internal, deeply-held sense of one's gender, which can align with or differ from one's assigned sex. This identity is influenced by a blend of biological factors, developmental cues, and environmental conditions.

A child’s gender identity evolves over time, similar to their physical development. While most children's affirmed gender identity aligns with their assigned gender, there are some who find a disconnect between these two aspects.


The Stages of Gender Identity Development

Understanding the developmental stages of gender identity can provide useful context for educators. Children as young as two become aware of physical differences between genders. Before their third birthday, most children can easily label themselves as a boy or a girl. By age four, a child's gender identity generally becomes more stable. Simultaneously, children start learning gender roles and may exhibit cross-gender preferences and behaviors, a normal part of their exploration and understanding of gender.


As children grow older, their understanding of gender evolves further. They begin to express their gender identity through their clothing choices, preferred names, and social behavior, among other ways. By the age of six, most children tend to play with peers of the same sex and engage in activities associated with their gender.


Educators' Role in Supporting Gender Identity Development

Educators play a pivotal role in creating an environment that respects diversity and promotes the exploration of different gender roles. To facilitate an inclusive learning environment, educators can incorporate resources depicting diverse and non-stereotypical gender roles and provide a variety of toys and learning materials for children to choose from. It is also important to allow students the freedom to choose their peer groups, activities, and interests without gender-based bias. Regular check-ins can help us understand their preferences and ensure they feel included and safe.


Understanding and Countering Gender Stereotypes

Society's expectations around "what girls do" and "what boys do" have evolved over time, broadening the scope of what's considered "acceptable" for each gender. Despite this, when a child's interests diverge from societal expectations, they may face discrimination or bullying.

Educators play a vital role in mitigating these societal pressures by promoting the creation of inclusive environments where students can freely express themselves, without the apprehension of judgment or isolation. Additionally, they can foster a spirit of individual exploration in students, encouraging them to pursue their passions, uninhibited by conventional gender expectations.


Ways to Show Support

It is essential for educators to encourage students to express their unique identities and support them through their gender identity development. Some ways to do this include:


Engaging in Conversations: Discuss gender identity with your students. This can start as soon as they are able to understand terms like "girl" and "boy."


Promoting Individuality: Encourage students to express their unique qualities, irrespective of their gender. Use individual-specific compliments that focus on their abilities and character.


Incorporating Diverse Resources: Utilize books and materials that represent a variety of gender identities and roles.


Collaborating with Parents and Professionals: Liaise with parents and mental health professionals if you notice signs of anxiety, depression, or other emotional distress in your students.


Developing an understanding of gender identity empowers educators to effectively promote inclusive environments, actively contributing to the emotional well-being and holistic growth of students. By embracing this knowledge, educators play a vital role in fostering a society that values, understands, and embraces each individual for their authentic selves.

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