Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
Early childhood education is imperative and challenging under any circumstances. Families formed through adoption, families with LGBTQ members, and children who are gender fluid bring their own unique challenges – and opportunities. Robin K. Fox, Interim Dean of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Education & Professional Studies, discusses what teachers, parents, and children need to know – and how they can apply that understanding every day
Chris Riback: Robin, welcome to the studio.
Robin K. Fox: Thank you very much.
Chris Riback: As you know, early childhood education is imperative and challenging under any circumstances.
Robin K. Fox: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris Riback: Your research focuses on a few sub-sectors that surely bring their own additional challenges. Families formed through adoption, families with LGBTQ members and children who are gender fluid. Obviously each of these is unique and we’ll talk about them kind of one by one, but at the highest levels, what makes interacting with less common family types particularly challenging in early childhood education?
Robin K. Fox: I think there are any number of reasons it’s challenging. I think personal beliefs of people. I think religious beliefs sometimes preclude folks from thinking about meeting the needs of some of the folks that you’ve listed there. I think that in early childhood we maybe haven’t done a great job of training people to work with, welcome and make inclusive environments. In particular for the three groups that you’ve discussed and the three groups of families that I work with and research.
Chris Riback: Let’s talk about the groups one by one a little bit because they have unique attributes-
Robin K. Fox: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: And unique challenges and opportunities. What guidance do you give to early childhood centers and teachers in building a welcoming constructive environment for families formed through adoption?
Robin K. Fox: I think there are a lot of things that we can do. We can watch our language first of all. As a member of a family formed through adoption, it really is upsetting to me when I hear people use the word adopt or adoption for anything other than forming forever families. So our two children know what we went through in order to adopt them. It was a long process, laborious process. We had to be very committed and we had to stay on task and so anytime they hear something like adopt a highway, or a classroom’s going to adopt a manatee, it negates the power of that word. We could simply use the word adopt or adoption for the formation of forever families.
Chris Riback: And the emphasis, and I’ve had the benefit of getting to hear you a little bit on this and read some of your work. The emphasis is on families.
Robin K. Fox: Yes.
Chris Riback: Families formed through adoption, but families is where the emphasis is.
Robin K. Fox: Absolutely. I think oftentimes we hear things like adopted children or adoptive family. These are families formed through adoption. Being adopted is a lifelong journey and there are many things to work through, but it’s really important I think for our students, and our children, and our early childhood teachers to talk about adoption as a process that has an end.
Chris Riback: What guidance do you give parents who have formed their family through adoption and who might engage an environment, in this case let’s just focus on early childhood environments where the sensitivity might not be there? What guidance do you give the parents?
Robin K. Fox: I think reaching out to other people who have formed their families through adoption is a good way to do it. Looking for staff members in early childhood centers who have formed their families through adoption and then really being honest with early childhood educators about maybe activities that don’t work well.
Robin K. Fox: So an example would be you’re the star of the week this week, Chris, and you’re going to bring in pictures from when you were a baby. That’s a lovely thing if you are not in a situation like in a foster care situation where there are no pictures and so in that moment you as a child who was adopted, you’re outed in a way that’s really discomforting. Back in my generation, when children were adopted, oftentimes we didn’t tell them they were adopted. We tried to match forever families with children who might look like them as they grow up and many times children weren’t told they were adopted until later in life. Honestly, the suicide rate for that group of people was very high. We now know that the best case scenario is talking about it from the moment we have those children in our families. So my students will often say, “When did you tell your children they were adopted?” The moment I held them and they probably would have figured it out because they’re both brown and they have two moms. So eventually they would have figured it out.
Chris Riback: Another area of focus for you, families with LGBTQ members.
Robin K. Fox: Right. So I think it’s really important that the very first thing that early childhood educators do is they look at their forms. My whole dissertation was on forms and visual artifacts. So if a form says mother’s name, father’s name, you’re telling me already that my family might not be welcomed here. So early childhood educators need to look at their forms. They need to make sure that they’re inclusive of many different family formations.
Chris Riback: You also work with children who are gender fluid.
Robin K. Fox: Yes.
Chris Riback: I’m curious about their early learning experiences. First, what defines gender fluidity for children that young? And secondly, what does a welcoming early learning experience look like for them, their parents and for other families in the program?
Robin K. Fox: These children don’t fit into the binary that we’ve all been made to believe is the truth. So there are multiple genders and ways of identifying and expressing. So a gender fluid child could one day be fluid and be representing a gender other than what they were assigned anatomically at birth. The next day they might be presenting in a way that does connect with their anatomical sex at birth or it might not change. At three years old they might say to us, “I am a girl even though assigned male at birth,” and that might stay with them for the rest of their lives or it might be fluid and changing.
Chris Riback: And do you offer the same general guidance, awareness, listen, be mindful of language?
Robin K. Fox: Yes.
Chris Riback: Look at all of your different touch points, from forms to, I would assume, the classroom itself.
Robin K. Fox: I think the thing with this in particular, teachers get very nervous. So yesterday we did a presentation and we had books about children who are gender fluid and teachers got very nervous about, well what will happen if I read that book and another parent gets upset. My response to that is you look first at your nondiscrimination clause and if in your nondiscrimination clause it says gender expression and gender identity, you have a responsibility. So I think people need to kind of just sometimes step back and look at policy and procedures and non-discrimination clauses and what’s in their family handbook that then supports them and protects teachers to do this really important work.
Chris Riback: As you think about the work that you do, the families that you know and work with, and as you look at our society, are you hopeful?
Robin K. Fox: I am hopeful.
Chris Riback: Is that because you are purely an optimist or is that based on what you see?
Robin K. Fox: I’m hopeful because yesterday we had over a hundred people who came to a session to try to understand how to be welcoming for children who are gender fluid, but it’s not enough. We need more of a national opportunity to showcase how important this is. The work that we can do in early childhood is not just life altering. It can be lifesaving.
Chris Riback: Well, thank you. Thank you for that work and the lifesaving work that you do. And on a much smaller level, thank you for coming by the studio.