Supporting Trans and Nonbinary Kids at School
Why gender affirmation at school matters, and how families can help
Clinical Expert: Emma C Woodward, PhD
What You'll Learn
- What challenges do transgender or nonbinary kids face at school?
- How can parents help kids navigate gender identity at school?
- When should families consider changing schools?
When kids come out as transgender or nonbinary, expressing their identity at school is often a big challenge. Feeling supported both at home and at school makes a huge difference to these kids’ mental health, and there’s a lot parents can do to help.
Transitioning at school can be tough because kids’ birth names and old pronouns are likely listed in school records. Being called by old names and pronouns can cause a lot of distress. Trans and nonbinary kids may also be targets for bullying. And even when their school and peers are supportive, figuring out when and how to come out can be confusing and stressful.
Parents can support kids by talking with them about what kinds of changes they might want to make, like updating the name on their ID card or using a different bathroom. They can also help kids figure out who at school they want to tell and what they want to say.
Sometimes kids will want to have these conversations themselves, or they might want parents to handle sharing information and making administrative changes.
The important thing is to follow kids’ lead and go at the pace that’s right for them. Never share information about the child’s gender without their consent. The goal is for kids to develop the skills to advocate for themselves over time.
IEPs and 504 plans can also help kids get support at school. They can formalize accommodations like using the bathroom at the nurse’s office or seeing the counselor without an appointment.
If a child is being bullied because of their gender identity and the school isn’t able to solve the problem, switching schools might be a good option. But even if that’s not possible, getting lots of support at home can still make a big difference.
When kids come out as trans or gender nonbinary, expressing their identity at school is often one of the biggest challenges. Parents can do a lot to make the transition easier, both by providing emotional support and by helping kids navigate school rules and relationships with teachers and peers.
This support — both at home and at school — is essential to the mental health of trans and nonbinary kids. Parents can be especially helpful to their kids when it comes to advocating for themselves at school — letting their teachers know everything from what name and pronouns they want to use to where they feel most comfortable changing for gym.
Several studies, including the 2022 Trevor Project poll, have shown that when trans and nonbinary kids don’t have parents who advocate for them at school and don’t go to schools that promote a gender-affirming environment, they are at a high risk for developing depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even attempting suicide. And kids 13–17 are at a higher risk than older teens and college-aged kids.
Being transgender means that the gender a person was assigned at birth does not match the way they feel inside. For example, a person who was assigned female at birth feels strongly that they are male. A person may also identify as neither completely female or male but rather as gender neutral or gender fluid. Those people often refer to themselves as nonbinary and frequently prefer the pronouns they/them rather than he/him or she/her.
Kids who question or want to change their gender identity usually do so because they are experiencing severe distress that they associate with the gender they were assigned at birth. “They know something is not right and it’s felt this way for a long time,” explains Emma Woodward, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Kids who’ve felt like they were living a lie because they could not be their authentic selves may feel less distressed almost immediately when they tell their parents.
Common challenges at school
In order to help trans and nonbinary kids feel safe and comfortable at school, one of the first steps is to understand the kinds of challenges they may face.
- Having peers and teachers use their birth name or old pronouns can cause kids significant distress. Teachers and kids may have known them by a certain name and pronouns for years. This information is often recorded in school- or even district-wide systems. There might be lots of paperwork that needs to be updated in order to get everyone on board with the change.
- “Making changes in clothing, appearance, and outward expression that are different from prescribed gender norms or different from their gender at birth can be really challenging,” says Dr. Woodward. Kids may be bullied or excluded, and these experiences (and the anxiety and other challenges that come with them) can interfere with their schoolwork and social lives.
- Deciding how, what, and who to tell about their gender identity can also be very challenging for trans and nonbinary kids. And because they have to keep attending school in the meantime, they can’t avoid the situation while figuring out what works for them.
It’s important to make sure that every piece of information or change that is shared is done with the consent of the child. There are a few different ways parents can help kids take the first step:
- Start by having conversations with your kid about what kinds of changes they want to make at school. For example, they may want to change the name or pronouns on their ID card, use a different bathroom, or dress in a way that better expresses their gender identity.
- Sometimes a child will identify a trusted teacher or school counselor and want to have a conversation with that person. Parents can practice with kids what they’re going to say or plan to go with them to provide support if kids want that.
- Often kids want to inform teachers and administrators via email. Parents can be the ones to reach out about administrative matters like having their child’s ID cards or school email addresses updated. But if the child is already relatively comfortable with their preferred gender identity, they may want to write these emails or have these conversations themselves. Parents can still help their child practice what they are going to say or write.
Dr. Woodward says that the appropriate level of parental involvement can depend on the child’s age, “but it can also depend on where the child is at in their gender identity journey and what their comfort level is with these things.” The ultimate goal for parents is to help kids become their own advocates, on whatever timeline works for them.
Learning self-advocacy while they’re still in school will help set them up for challenges that they’ll face in the future. “Advocating for themselves in the school setting can be such a helpful skill for these children and teens to learn,” says Dr. Woodward, “knowing that as they grow, they’ll need to advocate for themselves in the future in other settings, whether it be at college or with a new job or with social groups.”
How can IEPs and 504 plans help trans and nonbinary kids?
IEPs (Individual Education Programs) and 504 plans are both designed to help kids who are struggling in school. They offer ways for kids to get accommodations that help them succeed — for example, they can help a child with ADHD get extra time on tests. But they can also help trans and nonbinary kids overcome challenges at school. Many schools will provide accommodations on an informal basis, but some schools require a more formalized process.
For trans and nonbinary kids, IEPs and 504s can formalize things like allowing kids to use the nurse’s bathroom instead of a gendered restroom or locker room. “These are places where trans and nonbinary kids often face bullying or harassment,” says Dr. Woodward, “so these formal accommodations can make kids feel safer and just remove some barriers for the child’s education environment.” They may also include things like allowing a child who experiences a high level of anxiety or distress due to their gender identity to go to the school psychologist’s office when needed. Parents may also want to ask the school counselor to check in with their child on a regular basis or keep an eye out for any issues.
When does it make sense to change schools?
Dr. Woodward says that most schools she’s worked with want to be as helpful and supportive as possible. “But I think it’s also important for parents to recognize when their child isn’t really safe at their current school,” she adds. Schools may try as hard as they can but, says Dr. Woodward, “sometimes transgender or nonbinary kids and teens are being bullied in school and the school really doesn’t have the resources to protect them.”
In those cases, it might be advisable to change the child’s school. But in many cases, that’s not possible or practical. And if a child is simply stuck with a less than supportive school environment, then the support they get from parents is even more important.
Coming out at school is an ongoing adjustment, and it’s an especially useful time for kids to be able to talk to someone other than parents, who may be dealing with their own emotions around their child’s identity. This could be a therapist or a school counselor with experience in gender identity issues. Having a solid network of support makes all the difference in how trans and nonbinary kids grow and thrive at school and beyond.