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New Year, New Ideas: Advocating for the Four Cs
The end of summer means the start of a new school year for pre-K–12 students across the country and the dedicated staff who educate, counsel, nurse, feed, drive, and nurture them. Though I feel we’ve been saying this on repeat for a while now, this year is once again different from the ones preceding it. For many young people, the start of the 2021–2022 school year means returning to in-person learning for the first time in 18 months. Some students will be entering schools they have never stepped foot into. And while we’d hope to be on the distant memory side of COVID, the Delta variant and spike in positive cases raises anxiety, fear, and contention between parents, lawmakers, and educators. A small but growing percentage of students may be entering familiar school buildings, but peers and staff who recognized and knew them in March of 2020 may not recognize them anymore.
At the start of the pandemic, my NASP LGBTQI2-S Cochair and I put out resources on Coping During COVID-19. LGBTQIA+ youth experienced higher rates of self-harm, suicidal ideation, isolation, and desperation during the pandemic as they lost affirming supports such as school Gay–Straight Alliances (GSAs) and staff members who correctly gendered them and validated their humanity and authenticity. The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading crisis prevention and suicide intervention hotline, experienced the highest call volume since election day in 2016. For LGBTQIA+ youth living in unsupportive homes, the pandemic was excruciatingly difficult. Distance learning, being under the watchful eye of parents working from home, and being forced back into the proverbial closet was suffocating. But for some transgender and nonbinary youth who have supportive family situations, social isolation and virtual instruction provided the opportunity for them to socially and/or medically transition. This means some transgender and gender diverse students may be entering the same school with a new identity (or at least one which more outwardly resembles the person he/she/they have always been within).
As school psychologists, one of our most important roles is that of advocate—for and on behalf of students and their families. This may mean assertively pushing for more inclusive and welcoming school environments that are not just accepting or tolerant of diversity, but embracing and appreciative of such. In schools there’s a lot of talk of the three Rs, but it’s actually the four Cs which make reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic (seriously, who in education thought it was a good idea to misspell words in the name of educating?) possible. A school’s Culture, Climate, Curriculum, and Counseling make learning possible. They are essential components of tiered intervention: How staff work together, how one feels when they’re at school, how accessible curricula is to them, and the availability of counseling and psychoeducation services can mean the difference between whether any student, but particularly an LGBTQIA+ student, remains in school, feels safe in school, learns in school, and graduates from school. The ever-present reminders of “how much did students actually learn this past year” has led to discussions of curricula and remedial instruction, which has had me perseverating on what we are teaching students and whether or not we are reaching them.
As a student myself, I learned about Family Life Education with a focus on abstinence and pregnancy prevention, which is very geared toward cisgender, heterosexual persons. When I work with schools on being both more informed and inclusive, sex ed is the first curriculum that comes to mind, but the reality is the majority of what is taught in schools is heteronormative (the presumption that heterosexuality is ”normal” and preferred; by extension this has come to include the assumption that people exist on the gender binary as well and that people’s gender is aligned with that assigned to them at birth). NASP’s recently published Comprehensive and Inclusive Sexual Health Education position statement provides guidance for schools in providing accurate, relevant, comprehensive, applicable, developmentally appropriate, and gender- and sexuality-inclusive information. Inclusive curriculum is more than just recognition of LGBTQ+ History Month in October.
Nonironically, LGBTQIA+ persons have existed for centuries and have made contributions in virtually every subject area taught in schools. The problem is, we just teach about them. Or when we do teach about them, we don’t mention their sexuality. While such may not seem particularly relevant to the topic being taught (for example, learning in choir that Billie Holiday was openly bisexual in the 1930s or in history class that Eleanor Roosevelt was romantically involved with a female reporter), the reality is that when we cis-wash (i.e., teach or talk as if gender diversity doesn’t exist) and het-wash (i.e., teach or talk as if everyone is straight) we are perpetuating microaggressions and microinvalidations to queer and trans youth by unconsciously suggesting that their lived experience is inconsequential. Furthermore, “queering curricula” creates a sense of community in that LGBTQIA+ youth feel less alone, it can provide the needed hook that makes content relevant and relatable, and it openly exemplifies inclusivity to all students by recognizing both the existence of and contributions from queer and transgender persons in math, science, humanities, arts, literature, physical education, and more.
This table provides free and for-purchase resources which can help to create an inclusive curriculum in your school. School psychologists can consult with teachers to help diversify curriculum so that it is accessible, relatable, and meaningful to LGBTQIA+ youth. An inclusive curriculum helps to teach about diversity, equity, social justice, humanity, and understanding. It acknowledges commonalities between people while recognizing and embracing uniqueness. Inclusive curricula benefit all students while also serving as the entryway to career options by exposing queer and trans youth to LGBTQIA+ scientists, mathematicians, historians, linguists, authors, and more.
School psychologists can also advocate at the local, federal, and state levels on policies which support LGBTQIA+ youth. Additionally, we can speak out against policies which attempt to take rights away from them. One area in which school psychologists and state associations have been instrumental in recent years is speaking up in support of proposed bans of conversion therapy. The NASP Policy Playbook (particularly page 67, which addresses conversion therapy) and associated resources provide information on legislative advocacy, communication strategies, and sample text which can be used to effectively engage senators and representatives in needed policy changes. The guidance provided also includes tips for leveraging social media to advocate for youth on the virtual worldwide stage. Together we can reverse the disproportionality in graduation and college attainment while helping to create a more inclusive world.