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Age-appropriate tips for addressing gender stereotypes in the classroom

Promote positive gender representations and give students a broader perspective on their options

Common Sense’s 2017 research report, Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development, showed that kids who are fed gender stereotypes may internalize those roles, shaping their behavior for years to come.

Stereotypically gendered media shows kids a narrow view of who they are and what they can be. Girls must be princesses: damsels in distress and sexual objects. Boys must be superheroes: decisive and strong. The effects on children of gendered media include:

  • girls’ focus on their appearance and value as sexual objects
  • more tolerant views of sexual harassment
  • the establishment of gendered behaviors in romantic and sexual relationships
  • riskier behavior in boys
  • career choices limited by gender norms

While it’s the role of a parent or caregiver to communicate the family’s beliefs about gender expectations, teachers are key role models in kids’ lives and have an enormous impact on how kids regard themselves and their capabilities. It’s important to be mindful of how our words, actions, and content choices in the classroom can perpetuate or combat gender stereotypes.

What kids understand about gender norms and stereotypes varies depending on their stage of development. Across the grades, teachers can promote positive gender representations by presenting counter-stereotypes, talking to kids about gendered content, and teaching kids to critically analyze the media in their lives.

Use the grade-specific recommendations below to combat gender stereotypes and give your students a broader perspective on their options and capabilities.

Grades Pre-K–2
Kids in the primary grades are learning their gender identities and beginning gender-typed play (girls “clean the kitchen” and boys “mow the lawn”), often segregating into all-girl or all-boy play groups. It’s during these early years that kids learn stereotypes about activities, traits, toys, and skills associated with each gender. Young kids can also be pretty intolerant of gender-role transgressions.

Teachable moments

  • Introduce students to people from real life who show there’s more than one way to be a boy or a girl.
  • Select stories for the classroom that don’t play up gender stereotypes.
  • Comment positively on stories that equally value all genders.
  • Put kids into mixed-gender learning groups to encourage cross-gender friendships.

Grades 3–5
Older elementary school kids begin to attribute certain qualities to men and women—for example, that women are more emotional and affectionate and men are more ambitious and aggressive. They associate specific occupations and academic subjects with each gender. Kids at this age also continue to self-segregate based on gender.

Teachable moments

  • Seek out stories with non-stereotyped characters—for example, female characters with realistic body types and non-aggressive male characters.
  • Seek out stories that show adult men and women in both traditional and nontraditional occupations, including women as professionals and men as caretakers.
  • Recognize and draw attention to characters who defy gender stereotypes.
  • Praise characters who are instrumental to the storyline for what they do versus what they look like.

Grades 6–8
Adolescents feel self-conscious about their physical changes and feel pressure to conform to cultural gender norms. They are concerned about the potential of dating and begin to sort out how they are expected to behave in romantic and sexual situations. Middle school students can be intolerant of cross-gender mannerisms and behaviors.

Teachable moments

  • When teaching a text or film, have students identify examples of gender stereotypes and expectations within the context of the story.
  • Include texts that show how worth and happiness don’t come from appearance (especially important for female characters) or from physical strength (especially important for male characters).
  • Comment positively on healthy, supportive, and fulfilling cross-gender friendships and relationships.
  • Introduce students to three-dimensional transgender characters who experience both ups and downs and are accepted and supported by their peers and communities.

Grades 9–12
Teens are more flexible about gender stereotypes, and mixed-gender friendships among teens are common. Still, they want to learn gender-based expectations for how to behave in romantic and sexual situations. Teens become preoccupied with their future careers, as well as their appearance.

Teachable moments

  • Encourage students to identify and analyze gender stereotypes during close analysis of texts, films, or other media for class.
  • Invite students to think about what power structures benefit from gender stereotypes and what people can do to resist them.
  • Point out characters or people in real life who defy gender stereotypes—for example, boys and men who express their emotions in constructive ways and girls and women who voice their needs.
  • Introduce students to adults from real life or characters who have non-gender-stereotypical professions (for example, a male nurse or a female scientist).
  • Seek out texts and content that include LGBTQ characters who are fully realized and who don’t fit common gender- or sexual-orientation-based stereotypes.

Caroline Knorr and Tanner Higgin contributed to this article.

 [Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Common Sense Education.]

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