Start Early: Addressing Gender-Based Bullying in Elementary School

Kids learn the gender rules very young, and elementary schools are key sites for the construction and affirmation of culturally patterned gender relations. They learn that biological sex, gender, and sexuality are interrelated pieces of who we are and how we see the world, and they quickly learn that there are "normal," expected ways for these three things to fit together and "normal" ways to present themselves as boys and girls. Education sociologist Deborah Youdell argues that this relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality works to create possibilities and set limitations on who children are "allowed" to be in schools. These rules of social interaction, expression, and identity are intertwined with the traditional gender roles associated with heterosexuality -- even in the Pre-K and early elementary years.

It has become all but impossible to find gender-neutral spaces or toys in most stores. The girl aisles are the pink aisles, and toys there are miniature pink plastic replicas of cooking utensils, cleaning equipment, home décor, fashion (including bridal wear), child-rearing supplies, and dolls. On the boy aisle, one is likely to find trucks, guns and cars, and toys associated with "masculine" vocations, like fireman or superhero. There are no small blue plastic vacuum cleaners, ironing boards or high chairs on the "boy" aisle, no baby dolls that pee and cry. You may perhaps find a brightly colored lawn mower. This division in toys and the expected accompanying play mirror gender roles associated with "traditional" (1950s) heterosexual marriage -- women cook, clean and raise babies, men work away from the home and mow the lawn. Women are primarily in the home. Men are outside the home, making an impact on their environments--through building, bulldozing, fighting, or saving the world with their superhero feats. Together in couples, men and women get it all done. So, though childhood play is usually gender segregated, it is often based upon heterosexual coupling and normative gender roles.

The cultural assumption that girls and boys are essentially and naturally different also underlies the organization and pedagogy of many early years classrooms. There may be classroom activity centers such as a "building block corner," kitchen or dress-up area. Children playing in these areas may be given clear gender appropriate messages from both teachers and peers: "Boys don't wear dresses," "Girls don't like trucks." Class activities often require "girls vs. boys" competitions, and many daily organizational tasks, like lining up to go to lunch, rely on gender difference: "Girls line up here, boys line up there." These iterations of the gender binary visibly divide and categorize all students in the classroom into two distinct gender groups. Nothing in between.

Teachers also use these unnamed assumptions about "boys" and "girls" to interpret their students' activity. Research has shown that boys and girls engaged in the same behaviors in the classroom are evaluated very differently by their teachers, based on gender. Girls are less likely to interrupt others to speak, but those who do are interpreted as rude or unwilling to follow class rules. Boys interrupt their peers and the teacher more frequently and this can be interpreted as either an assertion of leadership or inability to follow class rules. Girls' school work is often described in terms of their perceived effort but boys' school work is interpreted according to their smartness and capability. Often, girls are rewarded for being nice, helpful and compliant while boys are rewarded for demonstrating skill and assertiveness. Educators reflect the cultural assumption that it is "natural" for boys to be boisterous, aggressive, competitive and unruly, but girls' behavior becomes a "problem" when it challenges the boundaries of femininity. Gender expectations are often used to correct behavior with admonitions like "Big boys don't cry" and "It's not ladylike to swear." An elementary school principal we worked with explained her acceptance of a FTM (female to male) transgender child in her school by reporting she corrected him using expectations for boy behavior, telling him "Boys don't hit girls"- thus reaffirming the gender binary. How about "People shouldn't hit each other!"?

There is certainly more space for gender fluidity in the elementary years than as children approach adolescence, but there remain limits. "Tomboy" has a long American cultural history as a space for young girls who temporarily oppose or reject traditional femininity. The label -- usually applied by others to the gender transgressive girl -- provides an explanation of her behavior, a clear categorization of these activities as not belonging to the girl realm, and an assurance that this is "just a phase." It's important to note that the "masculine" activities of the "tomboy" are considered of value, and therefore "allowed": curiosity, exploration of the environment, athleticism, competitive sports, building and taking things apart, learning "how things work," etc. The "sissy" boy does not fair as well, though very young boys may be allowed to play in the kitchen with pots and pans, to cook with their mothers, and sometimes to play with "girl" clothes and toys without severe sanction. There is, however, a cultural sense that even at a young age, such behavior hints at a "failed" boy who is choosing the less valuable women's arena. Boys who like these games and activities often learn shame and to hide their play. As both boys and girls move toward adolescence, they experience increased pressure to conform to more traditional gender behavior, and increased stigma if they do not.

We see the increase in gender policing in children as young as 9 or 10. Many bullying behaviors are acts of gender policing and much of the aggression that occurs within student social culture can be connected to gender norms. Any child who does not live up to idealized gender performances (and these vary by peer culture) is subject to this kind of harassment. Such targeting reinforces the parameters for how boys and girls are "supposed" to look, behave, and "be" in the school environment. Homophobic bullying is significantly rooted in gender policing. Many young boys have been labeled "fag" for a love of purple sneakers, long before they may have any recognition of sexual desires (hetero or otherwise), much less have expressed them. So it is important to increase educator awareness about the ways the gender binary is used to target and stigmatize children, the ways in which classroom practices continuously reinforce the gender binary, and to ask them to think outside the "boxes" and challenge them to teach through and around their own investment in the idea of discrete genders.

There are a number of simple strategies elementary educators can use to begin engaging in a more gender-inclusive pedagogy. For example, classroom materials can be reviewed for gender stereotypes and teachers can provide materials showing a wide range of activities, emotions and achievement for all children. (These curricular materials should include images of women as powerful leaders and men as nurturers.) Age-appropriate literature can be used to challenge sexist stereotypes and introduce different family structures and gender expressions. Children can be encouraged not to see activities or professions as "boy" or "girl" but open to all. Visual representation of these ideas through classroom posters and bulletin boards can help "normalize" a wider range of gendered options for children. Discussing gender discrimination when it comes up, countering statements that limit gender expression and providing children with concrete examples can help encourage acceptance and understanding of gender diversity at an early age. Elementary educators have a tremendous amount of opportunity and power to challenge students' assumptions about gender and soften their investment in the gender binary, and these strategies have the potential to develop children's self-awareness in how they make judgments about "normal" gender expression.

We know that LGBTQ student harassment has its roots in a rigid dedication to the gender binary and the normative relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality. Helping children understand in the early years of schooling that there is not just one "right" way to be a boy or a girl will open up opportunities for each child to explore their education more fully and will reduce the harshness of their critique of others whom they judge to be doing gender "outside the box."

Our ideas on bullying have been formed both through our own teaching and research in schools and through engagement with the research and writing of others in our field. Many of our research references are cited on our website