Chapter 6
How to assist a child to socially transition at school

When a child/adolescent is ready, as a learning institution you can support them to socially transition in the learning environment into their gender identity. This Master Class gives the steps that a learning institution can take to facilitate this, as well as some possible answers to possible questions and some culture and faith based reasons for supporting trans and gender non-conforming children/adolescents.

The parents and the principal are important role players in social transitioning. Other members of the team that will help a child/adolescent to socially transition could include a social worker, psychologist or counsellor, a specialist from an organisation working with gender non-conforming and transgender people, as well as relevant teachers or administrators at your learning institution     . The process that is described in this Master Class has been refined and used over time by the Triangle Project in South African schools.

Steps toward assisting a child to socially transition at a learning institution    

There are three different scenarios under which a child/adolescent may transition at a learning institution and these will need to be taken into account throughout the process:    

  1. The child/adolescent is already at the learning institution and wants to publicly transition.
  2. The child/adolescent is starting new at the learning institution and is comfortable with having their social transition be wholly or partially public.
  3. The child/adolescent is starting new at the learning institution specifically in order to socially transition and wants to keep this from public knowledge. This is known as being “stealth”. Note that most transgender children/adolescents want anonymity and so stealth is often the preferred option.

Step 1: Child/Adolescent, parents and facilitator initiate the process

The process of transgender children/adolescents socially transitioning is initiated by them. Hopefully they will have supportive parents who can initiate the process at the learning institution. The parents and/or the learning community can support the process by finding a facilitator from an organisation that supports transgender and gender non-conforming children/adolescents to journey with the learning environment in the process.

Step 2: Principal and learning institution management team take a principled stand and get educated

The principal should call a meeting with the learning institution’s management and the child’s/adolelscent’s parents. The facilitator can position the decision needed from the governing body to support the student’s/learner’s right to socially transition at the learning institution.

The facilitator can also present background and basic information about transgender children/adolescents transitioning socially.

The parents should be invited to tell the story of their child/adolescent. The facilitator can then answer questions and address concerns. Concerns that      management may raise may include:

  • parents of other students/learners with possible religious, cultural, and other objections      
  • different ways to handle public transition or stealth newcomer
  • bullying
  • official records vs. new name and pronouns
  • school uniform
  • concerns about toilets and changing rooms and participation in sports.

It is best to follow the lead of the child/adolescent in determining the use of toilets and change rooms at the learning institution. Typically, toilet facilities are not unisex, although some may be identified. Toilets are separated into male or female ablution facilities. A transgender child/adolescent should be given the choice to use the toilet facility that they feel most comfortable using. Likewise, they should say what will make them most comfortable with regard to changing room facilities.

Step 3: In-service training for the grade teachers, the full faculty, and support staff

The management then needs to take the lead in stating their support up front and setting up training sessions for staff. At the learning institution, a “go-to person” should be set up for the student/learner, possibly a guidance counsellor or Life Orientation teacher.

Step 4: Meet with parents of transgender student’s/learner’s grade

The learning institution should consider setting up a meeting with the parents of the transgender student’s/learner’s grade and express their support. The learning institution should inform the parents of the team’s decision and recognise the human rights of the student/learner in an open and assertive way. If it is a public transition, the parents should again be invited to share their story. Where the child/adolescent wishes to transition in stealth, the child’s/adolescent’s parents should not be there.

You will find that most often, other parents are positive and supportive, and those who know the transgender student/learner often affirm their parents. A few may raise religious and/or personal concerns about the challenge for themselves in how to address the issue with their own children/adolescents and the facilitator should be prepared to offer support in these conversations.           

Step 5: Establish an action team with learning institution      social workers,      counsellors, and L     ife O     rientation teachers

A small team, including the child’s/adolescent’s go-to person, should be established to strategise on further activities with in the learning institution. These might include:

  • support strategies for staff and after-care staff
  • support strategies for students/learners in class/grade
  • strategising incorporating gender identity into the Life Orientation syllabus    
  • strategising around pronouns, getting the right name on class lists, matric documents, etc.

Step 6: Educate students/learners

Education of students/learners will depend on their age. You can find age appropriate activities in your resource tab.

You can also find common questions asked about transgender and gender non-conforming children with possible responses in your resource tab.

Working with religion and culture

Many people in South Africa have views concerning gender non-conforming and transgender people that are still rather limited. This applies not only to orthodox Christians and Muslims, but also to the population in general. Sometimes people may not have the word “gender” in their mother tongue. Their unforgiving and intolerant attitude may be the result of various factors. To shut out or not fully accept too much diversity is a natural mechanism known to most of us. Whichever strategy you choose to follow when discussing transgender and gender non-conformance with adults and children/adolescents, it remains crucial to be open to their ideas and concepts, to examine where there is uncertainty, and to engage in a respectful discussion.

Faith-based reasons to support transgender and gender non-conforming-inclusive education

Human dignity is the most important principle in education. Inclusive education is about safe-guarding human dignity, and the respect for all human beings, not about countering positions as wrong from a religious perspective     .

Religions are based on compassion, acceptance, peace, and love. Their traditions carry a duty to all those who are marginalis     ed.

Major religions share the belief that we should treat others as we would want to be treated (The Golden Rule).

Transphobia is a way of agreeing with and turning a blind eye to violence, and hate. Major religions condemn violence, and hate.

Educating children about transgender and gender non-conforming people is not sex education. It is about addressing the realities and issues of transgender and gender non-conforming people in age-appropriate, and meaningful ways.

Religion encourages community. All human beings deserve to be treated as valuable, contributing members of their communities.