How can early childhood programs create welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ families and providers?
With more than 15% of same-sex couples raising children in their household, we asked early childhood experts for their perspectives on what makes a difference when ensuring early childhood programs are inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals and families.
Promoting every child’s sense of identity and belonging matters. Early childhood educators know we all want and deserve to be seen, heard, and feel valued for who we are, as we are – and that our sense of identity is shaped by and includes our families. Ensuring every child’s thoughts and feelings about themselves and where they fit are positive and affirming, results in the healthy social-emotional foundation required for all learning and development.
As LGBTQ+ families invest time in carefully choosing early childhood education partners and programs for their children, they look for educators that will celebrate their child’s (and family’s) sense of identity and belonging.
- State loudly and proudly that family diversity is celebrated in your program and curriculum. Family members feel welcomed, safe, and seen when your program communication tools, your organizational mission and values statements, your intake forms and your online program platform contain inclusive language and images of diverse families including parents who identify as LGBTQ+. Affirming their unique family structure tells everyone about your commitment to fostering a safe environment for their children where diversity is valued, and biases are challenged and addressed.
- Dedicate time to getting to know all of your families, including your LGBTQ+ families. Every family culture has its own language and ways of being, including ways of being when in community with others. How does the family wish for you to communicate with and about them? Are they comfortable sharing details about their home life and family relationships? What name does their child call them? I also found it important to check in and seek permission when communicating personal information about every family when building our program community. Some family members who identify as LGBTQ+ may not be “out” in all aspects of their lives. Talking about and respecting family members’ wishes strengthens the partnership and communicates how much you value their family and child.
- Create a program environment that promotes a connected, inclusive community. As part of your program intake process, take family photos, frame them and place them above each child’s cubby or space where their personal belongings were stored. The result will be a family photo gallery that reflects the beautiful diversity and relationships present in every family and in your program community. Parents and family members get to know each other (and whose child is whose) through the photos. The photos make it easier for families to get to know each other during program family gatherings – and again – to feel seen and affirmed as a member of your early childhood program community. You can also create family photo books and place them in every classroom library. (Tip: Laminate these because they are so well used (and loved) by children and educators!) The books celebrate every family, invite conversations about different kinds of families and serve as a wonderful tool to answer questions from children about families that differ in some ways from theirs.
Early childhood education programs are most parents’ first formal experiences with schooling. In turn, they can set parents on a path of feeling that they are valued partners in their children’s education, or, alternatively, they can set parents up to feel devalued and invalidated. LGBTQ+ parents who feel accepted, included, and valued by their children’s daycare or preschool report feeling more motivated to be involved in their children’s education, feel greater warmth towards their children’s teachers and care providers, and more positively about the school/day care in general. They are also more satisfied with the education/care their children receive.
Right now, LGBTQ+ families are on edge with the constant attacks on their families and identities. There are ongoing bans on books that depict content related to gender and sexuality, laws limiting LGBTQ+ rights (especially access to gender-affirming care), and ongoing efforts to restrict the type of reproductive health care that LGBTQ+ parents rely on to build their families. Therefore, what early childhood settings do to actively include and respect LGBTQ+ parent families matters more than ever.
Early childhood education centers can seek to be inclusive by carefully reviewing their websites, paperwork, and public-facing materials for inclusivity. Do images and photos only depict “moms and dads?” Does the paperwork allow for all types of parents and family constellations (e.g., parent 1, parent 2, parent 3, parent 4)? Are parents and caregivers referred to in gender-neutral ways? Do value statements acknowledge diversity, equity, and inclusion — and are those values embodied in the type of curriculum and physical environment of the program? Books, for example, should depict a diverse range of family constellations (two mom, two dad, multiracial, adoptive). Likewise, holiday celebrations should also reflect this inclusivity: E.g., Parent’s Day celebrations as opposed to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; Indigenous Peoples’ Day as opposed to Columbus Day.
Early childhood programs should also carefully evaluate whether and how they enact gender role stereotypes — such as through the use of pink nametags for girls and blue nametags for boys; references to kids as girls and boys (versus terms like children, people, and kids); and the arrangement of dress up materials and toys (e.g., are they divided up into gendered categories; are children encouraged to play with all types of materials). Staff should be sure to ask, and also remember, what children with LGBTQ+ parents call their parents. Some parents may not use gendered terms.
Early childhood programs can also actively seek to recruit LGBTQ+ staff, support parents in starting affinity groups (e.g., for LGBTQ+, multiracial, and/or adoptive families), seek out training for their current staff on LGBTQ+ issues and families, have a reference list of LGBTQ+ parent alumni willing to speak to prospective parents and organize to march in local Pride celebrations.
Dig deeper into fostering identity and belonging with our Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™.
First, centers can make their environment LGBTQ+ friendly by normalizing the use of pronouns with families and staff. For example, when a director is welcoming a family to the center, the director can say, “Hi my name is Director Milo, and my pronouns are They/Them. If you are comfortable, you can share your preferred pronouns so I know how to address you respectfully”. This can also work with new staff as well. When I hear someone use my preferred pronouns, it makes me feel respected and cared for because that individual is putting in the effort to avoid using the assumed pronoun that is associated with my appearance. Of course, slip-ups will happen, but that is where the learning begins. If someone slips up, anyone can say respectfully, “Actually that person uses [preferred pronoun]”. Normalizing the action of asking for others’ pronouns cultivates an environment of respect and allyship.
Second, early childhood programs can represent LBGTQ+ families in their marketing. In my experience, I have seen many fliers, pamphlets, or online ads for childcare centers that showcase families with a mom and a dad. The marketing can be more inclusive to represent families with lesbian or gay parents. Children of LBGTQ+ families will see themselves represented in a positive light that communicates, “Our school wants your child to get a high-quality education where your community of identity is respected and represented”. Representing LBGTQ+ families matters because it will show the children that their family matters too.
Read more about Milo's journey as an LGBTQ+ early childhood educator.
Seeing a positive portrayal of LBGTQ+ families in books not only helps empower the children within these families but also expands and helps shape the definition of “family” for others.
Our favorite picture books representing LGBTQ+ families:
- Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers
- Teddy’s Favorite Toy by Christian Trimmer
- Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild
- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
- 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert
- Bedtime, Not Playtime! by Lawrence Schimel