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Educating child educators about gender and sexuality

Children sometimes have questions relating to gender and sexuality, and University of Guelph-Humber instructor Alice Balter has found that early childhood educators often feel unprepared to answer.

Balter, in collaboration with University of Guelph’s Dr. Tricia van Rhijn, has conducted research into early childhood educators perceptions and training needs in the developmental domains of sexuality and gender. And as she presented at her recent Lecture Series talk, Balter and Dr. Van Rhijn have found that significant strides still need to be made.

“Many educators are not trained to address sexuality, nor do they have administrative support to do so,” Balter said.

“There’s a general lack of conversation around these topics in Early Childhood.”

It should be noted that there's a crucial distinction to be made around what the development of sexuality is in the early years.  

“When we talk about supporting the development of sexuality in the early years we’re talking about creating healthy boundaries and supporting children's gender expressions,” Balter said. “It’s thinking about how to support gender neutral play, which may be outside of the gender binary”

One problem for educators is a lack of professional guidelines. In Balter’s research, 64 participants were asked if their workplace had a clear policy in place. In response, a third of educators said they didn’t know if one existed, while another 54 per cent stated that there was no policy.

That can leave educators feeling as though they’re in uncharted territory when dealing with these issues. And because it’s a topic that isn’t often discussed, Balter’s lecture will be valuable for students interested in working with children.

“In my experience, there’s not a lot of training or discussion around sexuality and gender in the early years,” Balter said. “What we found in our research is that there were a fair number of participants who felt comfortable talking about sexuality and gender and addressing children’s questions, but they felt less comfortable if their administrators weren’t supportive or there wasn’t a policy in place.

“That does have implications for the children.”