As part of growing up, children and young people discover their identity and begin to develop a sense of who they are. This may include exploring their gender (e.g. their gender identity) and the different ways they express their gender, and who they are attracted to (e.g. their sexual orientation).
As they develop, some children and young people may explore different ways of being which does not conform to dominant forms of gender identity or sexual orientation. Some children may identify themselves as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) during primary school years.
Why is this issue important?
Without acceptance, understanding and support, LGBT young people have a greater risk of experiencing poorer mental health (Russell & Fish, 2016*). While LGBT identity is not, in itself, a risk factor, many LGBT young people do report experiences of stigma, discrimination, social isolation and bullying – which we know can have a highly detrimental effect on self-esteem, wellbeing and mental health over time. LGBT young people can also find it difficult if other people around them – teachers, doctors, parents/carers, family, friends, youth workers, faith leaders and other young people – respond negatively or don’t provide them with the support they need.
* Russell, S.T. and Fish, J.N., 2016. Mental health in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. Annual review of clinical psychology, 12, pp.465-487.
Gender identity and sexual orientation
Gender identity and sexual orientation are different and should not be confused.
Gender identity is how individuals see themselves and how they identify themselves. It can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. Sexual orientation is a person’s emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to other people. For further information about terminology and language please see the Stonewall guide below.
- Stonewall, a national charity supporting the LGBT community, has created a guide for primary school teachers which includes child-friendly descriptions of variations in gender and sexuality.
- MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion. This session aims to help staff better understand more about sexuality and mental health.
Protective factors: what schools can do
Teaching around sexual health and safe relationships should be discussed with governing boards, where appropriate. Schools should also liaise with parents/carers over the content of sexual health and safe relationships education and the context in which issues will be presented. A template letter seeking consent is included in the resources below.
To support LGBT children and families, guidance suggests that schools can:
- Ensure that sex and relationship education is relevant to all children and sensitive to their age and needs.
- Be sensitive to LGBT children and families and ensure they are supported in the context of a wider, consistent, long-term whole-school ethos about respect for others, celebrating difference, inclusivity, equality, diversity, fairness and justice.
- Celebrate diversity and address prejudice early in an age appropriate way. From early years foundation stage upwards, schools can include work about acceptance and about avoiding stereotypes and prejudice. This can include exploring other types of families using resources such as Stonewall’s ‘different families, same love’.
- Develop the curriculum to meet the needs of LGBT learners by reviewing the content of books and resources and ensuring staff do not make assumptions about children’s families. Create a positive, enabling and inclusive school environment to help make LGBT-based bullying less likely and proactively tackle it. See this government evaluation of a number of programmes that have tackled homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. Check that policies, procedures and school forms are inclusive of LGBT parents and children.
- Set clear ground rules for appropriate language and should challenge anything written or said in a discriminatory way. Stonewall has created some scripts to help schools to address incidents where derogatory or offensive language is used.
- Challenge gender stereotypes, for example that there is a ‘typical boy’ or ‘typical girl’. This will help children feel happier in themselves and help create a sense of belonging at school.
- Provide extra support to children who need it: as with all children, some LGBT children will need extra help and support if they are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. Because of the potentially long-term impact of bullying, children who have experienced bullying should be prioritised for help.
- Recognise the potential needs of LGBT children as one of the priorities in your school’s health and wellbeing strategies and policies.
Broader best practice in supporting children’s mental health in schools indicates the importance of school staff:
- Providing whole-school lessons promoting social and emotional skills to help develop all children’s resilience.
- Establishing positive relationships with all children – built on trust, kindness, respect, safety and security. This can help promote pupil wellbeing and encourage children to talk and open up.
- Providing a befriending system for isolated children.
- Helping children get early support, when they need it (e.g. through pastoral care/ school counselling, school nurses or through referral to community-based support).