Do you ever find yourself standing in front of the classroom and saying “OK, boys and girls” or something similar? Teachers have been saying some version of this phrase for about as long as classrooms have been coed. But maybe you’re looking for gender-neutral terms you can use in your classroom?
After all, an increasing number of education experts and professional educator organizations are calling for teachers to increase the use of gender-neutral language in the classroom in order to be more inclusive. So what does that mean for you, and more importantly, what sort of gender-neutral terms should you be using in an elementary school setting?
The language we use with kids has a direct impact on their understanding of gender. One study completed in a pre-school setting in 2010 by Penn State researchers, for example, looked at groups in which preschool teachers either used gender-neutral language or used gendered language. The researchers determined that kids in the gendered language group were less likely to play with children of the opposite gender and were more likely to invoke gender stereotypes relative to the gender-neutral language group.
Meanwhile, another study looked at the effect of gender-neutral language use with 7-year-olds, having one group of kids use gender-neutral toys, bathrooms, and nicknames, and introducing them to professionals who subvert traditional gender roles, from female mechanics to male makeup artists while another group had a traditional classroom setting. The researchers found that the kids in the gender-neutral group had a boost in female self-esteem and there was overall encouragement of a more level playing field.
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How Is Gender-Neutral Language Used in the Classroom?
Using gender-neutral language as a teacher doesn’t mean you completely ignore the words “boy” and “girl.” Not only are these sight words that students learn in elementary school, but many kids will still use these terms to self-identify.
Instead using gender-neutral terms to address students or in your assignments is simply a means to eliminate assumptions about someone’s gender identity based on appearance. Using gender-neutral terms in an elementary school classroom promotes inclusion by teaching your students these terms to use with their own classmates, as well as creating a nurturing environment for all students.
Gender Neutral Terms to Use in the Classroom
When you’re addressing a group of students, the experts at the Human Rights Campaign recommend using inclusive terms that address the class as a whole.
In other words? Try to avoid falling back on gendered terms such as “boys and girls,” “ladies and gentlemen,” or even “you guys.” Of course, you’ll still need to address groups of students, so you might want to try some of these gender-neutral terms for groups of people, including some fun versions that will make your kiddos laugh:
- Little Einsteins
- Cool Cats and Kittens
- All y’all
- Earthlings (Kick it off with a “greetings”)
- Mateys (Best when paired with ahoy!)
- Mates (Add a g’day at the start)
- Epic humans
- Awesome humans
When discussing individual people with your students or when writing word problems, avoid ending words in -man or -woman and avoid assigning a gender when there’s no need to assign one. This can eliminate issues of children feeling left out when being raised by a single parent, for example, and avoid genderized stereotypes about particular professions. For example:
- Instead of mother or father, say parent.
- Instead of spaceman, say astronaut.
- Instead of postman, say postal worker.
- Instead of Congresswoman, say member of Congress.
- Instead of waitress, say server.
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What about gender-neutral pronouns? Here are some suggestions from the folks at the National Council of Teachers of English:
- Avoid using “he” as a universal pronoun.
- Instead of saying “he or she” or “his or her” when the gender is unknown, use “they/them/theirs.”
- Respect students’ pronouns.
Which terms do you use to address groups of students in your classroom?
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