Ask the Expert – Transitioning in School

An interview with Welcoming Schools Director, Johanna Eager

How should parents prepare for talking with their child’s school about socially transitioning?

Parents and other family members need to make a lot of decisions and think through questions––especially about whether the process is going to be public or private. Depending on what point in the school year the child is transitioning, how private can a social transition be and how can we plan accordingly? Do we want a letter to go home to other parents? Do we want the teacher to inform the student’s peers? Some families choose to initiate the transition over the summer or to change schools so their child can have more privacy. In my experience it’s very difficult to have a totally private transition––it’s certainly not easy––so it’s important for a family to think through the reality of a private transition if that is desired. Even so, parents have the right to choose whom they talk to about their child’s transition, and school officials need to be careful to respect privacy.

Parents should also let the child lead when it comes to these questions, and consider how soon the child wants to transition or whether they want more time to feel prepared. Ask the child what adult in the school they want to be the person they turn to if they need help––if someone is harassing them or misgendering them or asking them questions they don’t want to answer. Even with a transition that goes smoothly, questions and teasing still happen, so it’s important to identify a safe person the child can go to.

What are some problems or situations you’ve encountered working with schools to support a socially transitioning student?

Over the years I’ve seen situations where the school, in an effort to be supportive, ends up violating the child’s and the family’s right to privacy. So, for example, I remember a situation where the transitioning child and her parent went to meet with the principal to plan the child’s social transition. Upon arrival, the principal had gathered a “support team” consisting of the student’s primary teacher, the gym teacher, the school counselor. Despite good intentions by the principal, this was shocking to the parent, and their privacy had been violated.

Another violation of privacy that can occur is when another parent complains to the principal that they do not want their child sharing a bathroom with a transgender child. Whereas a principal knows not to have a discussion, for example, about a differently abled child with another student’s parent, I have seen school staff violate a transgender child’s privacy when pushed about bathroom concerns. So if a parent comes in with these concerns, the principal should say, “I’m not going to talk to you about another student in the school, but let’s talk about your child. Tell me what’s going on with them around the bathroom. Maybe we need to find them a different bathroom to use. Maybe they can use the nurse’s bathroom. Let’s talk about accommodating your child,” again, without talking about the transgender student or otherwise violating their privacy.

How can parents and educators ensure a student’s social transition goes as smoothly as possible?

Transitions tend to be easier in schools that have already begun working to create welcoming and gender-inclusive classrooms. Talk about gender––just like you would talk about race or family diversity in your classroom. Part of our work with schools is to provide handouts and lesson plans for helping teachers learn to talk about gender with students. Do staff know how they are going to respond and educate when a student says, “Girls aren’t supposed to have short hair?” or “Blue is a boys’ color.”

Social transitions should be tailored to each specific student and their family and may look different for every student. What may work for one student and their family may feel totally wrong for others. Everyone wants a perfect protocol, but there isn’t one. The one thing that holds true across the board, though, is to support the child.

For more information on Welcoming Schools, a project of the HRC Foundation, visit welcomingschools.org.

For more information on supporting transgender students in schools, visit hrc.org/schoolsintransition.