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Inclusive preschool environments for LGBTQ families

Inclusive preschool environments for LGBTQ families

October 18, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #14 "Inclusive preschool environments for LGBTQ families”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

In this week's episode we talk about how early childhood educators can create an environment that is inclusive for all families including LGBTQ or rainbow families. We delve into why visibility of LGBTQ families is important in the preschool context. How educators can promote inclusively in their curriculum and how best to communicate diversity with all families in your program. Our guest Shelley Secrett has been an early childhood educator for over 12 years and is currently in ECP at Emmanuel at Brighton childcare center in Waterloo Ontario.

She is also the owner of Secrett Events which helps organize non-profit events highlighting local talent people and shared experiences to bring communities together. To learn more about having an inclusive environment in your pre-school and working with LGBTQ families, stay tuned for this week's episode of the preschool podcast.

Shelley welcome to the preschool podcast so great to have you on the show. Let's start off just learning a little bit more about how you got into early childhood education and why you're passionate about this field.

Shelley SECRETT: Sure Ron thanks. Actually I used to be an accountant. Can you believe that. And I was looking to make a career change and I had always loved children. But way back from high school when I was considering getting into this field, people always said oh that doesn't make enough money. But really when I look at it in my heart to heart I just knew that working with children is absolutely where my passion lies. And I just feel like every single day can make a difference with them. And it's been true that every single day of my career I have absolutely loved it. So I know I'm in the right place.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. And one of the things that you really support and get behind is visibility of LGBTQ families in the early learning environment. Two questions for you. First of all can you just clarify what LGBTQ stands for our audience. And then why do you think that that's so important for early childhood education.

SECRETT: Absolutely. So the acronym LGBTQ stands for lesbian gay bisexual trans and queer or questioning. OK. The acronym actually is a lot longer these days because in many new terms are being added quite frequently just to increase the inclusivity to include the various genders that are that are coming about. And in many different ways that people are defining themselves. So LGBTQ is the common acronym. And so you are you asking who or why do I think visibility is so important. I think that especially in the early years or even before school I think children, their perceptions of LGBTQ people are learned much earlier even when school age.

And so I think it's the responsibility of early childhood educators or anyone working in really learning environments just to teach that there are so many ways that we are different and also ways that we are the same and just start planting those seeds of acceptance earlier in life will hopefully make children even more accepting when they get into the school age system. I also think that creating visibility and early learning environments sends a strong message to anyone any family hesitating when approaching our services just knowing whether or not they would be welcome there. And I really believe that all families should be honored and recognized as well in the classroom environment.

SPREEUWENBERG: So even if you don't necessarily know if you have any existing or prospective families that are LGBTQ like you said maybe you're showing a family a tour of your childcare program and they happen to be part of that community. You want them to see that you're addressing that topic?

SECRETT: Yeah absolutely and it's not just for someone who identifies as LGBTQ. It's also for absolutely anybody any one seeing visibility of this kind of family is going to put it together that wow this is a center that cares about diversity and if they care about this kind of diversity then they probably care about all kinds of diversity which is so important. Isn't just one aspect of diversity that I happen to have a passion for. Definitely whether or not you think you have someone in your in your center. This may actually help youth in your program later in life. I got messages very early even in my preschool years that what I am is OK. And if we can plant the seeds now what a beautiful thing later for children as they get older and figuring out who they are.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very good point. Now one of the things I'm sure you probably hear is a question when you're doing workshops or sessions about this topic is what if parents are going to be upset. Maybe they think it's too early to bring up the subject with their children at a certain age. Is what's the response to that.

SECRETT: No I think when parents approach a child care looking whether or not they're going to enroll their child there's a parent handbook. And in every child care they would have a mission statement and part of that mission statement is going to include the fact that they celebrate all kinds of diversity that's a very common phrasing. And so they would already know at the time of enrolment that all kinds of diversity would be celebrated and that we follow the Canadian Charter of Human Rights.

And this is the law. We're not asking anyone to change their own beliefs but knowing that they have brought their child to an organization that supports all kinds of diversity not just something that would be expected that we would be teaching in our classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I was just going to say it almost speaks to who we are as Canadians more broadly. But when I listen to you explain it.

SECRETT: And can I just add something in there just you know we are we are living in Canada and do follow that Canadian Charter of Human Rights. So speaking of Rights children have the right to an inclusive education that is free from discrimination. So we do teach the children about respecting diversity and valuing everybody. So I think that's the beautiful part about being in Canada.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. Now that's from the parents’ perspective. Now what about from the early childhood educator’s perspective because you know what you're saying to me makes sense and if I'm an early childhood educator listening to this podcast I'm thinking to myself, yeah, this makes sense. I would want to do this as well but I don't really know too much about this topic and I kind of feel a little bit uncomfortable with it as well. Is there anything that administrators or supervisors can do to support them in bringing up these topics or these themes?

SECRETT: Absolutely. I think the greatest way really is providing LGBTQ training and a lot of centers wouldn't even know perhaps how to get started with that. And I think I would advise centers to start by contacting their cities pride comity if they have a pride festival happening because often the Pride Festival is very well connected with other LGBTQ organizations. And they can at least get some ideas of who to contact and where training could be found and training can be as simple as having people understand the current terminology because like I mentioned earlier the terminology is changing all the time.

And I think administrators could also include to training different case scenarios like what to do if or how do you handle different situations such as something as simple as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, this training could also include not making assumptions about who has entered your center. You know you could you could see a new family come in you think oh great. We have we have a family with two moms that really they don't identify as moms. One may be a transgendered man you know in some of this training will actually help educators to approach the family and say you know let me just tell you this Ron, people would much rather in the LGBTQ community they would much rather that you approached them with your questions than just ignore it and keep it under a rug. If you're wondering well how does your child call you by mom mama or whatever it may be. They want to have the questions asked so that they can then have their family reflected properly within the center. So a lot of training can help with getting a conversation started and creating a little bit more comfort around it.

SPREEUWENBERG: And I think that actually aligns very much to one of the key themes of this podcast which is leadership in early childhood education and that's kind of what I'm hearing a little bit is if you've met prospective family and you're not sure is to take that leadership role and ask those questions in the end maybe step out of your comfort zone to have those conversations and especially if that's going to be the preference of people coming in who are part of that community to have that conversation as opposed to sweep it under the rug as you say. So that's a really good point too.

Now let's say I'm an early childhood educator I'm now a little bit more comfortable with the idea of bringing this theme into my programs. Any ideas on how I would actually go about doing.

SECRETT: Absolutely. Now I run a workshop called Rainbow Family Visibilities in the Early Years. And I think one of the easiest ways for early childhood educators is to read children's books. That's a good foundation. And having not just one or two books in their center but having a shelf of books some variety actually some of my favorite books I use are Donovans big game for instance and this is and this book is so beautiful because it takes place the day of a boy getting ready for a big event. You don't know what the event is going to be until the very end of the book which shows that his two moms are getting married. And why I love this kind of group is it's not about OK. Today we're going to talk about gay families. You know it was just an ordinary boy's life which was his life and his story. And you know it should be a lot more subtle in books rather than today we're going to have a discussion about you know this book can be alongside any other book.

These books should not just come out once a month because or you know even a year when it's pride season. Now these books should be on our shelves at all at all times. So there's many different books so they're all family and they're special. Tango Makes Three, there's many that can be looked at and just by putting in the words family diversity to research.

SPREEUWENBERG: And what about from the educators perspective. So you know let's say there is not immediate availability of some training or workshops session or something like this if I want to go online to find out more information maybe about terminology or this topic generally. Any ideas about where I should go.

SECRETT: Absolutely, there have actually been some incredible resources that pertain more to the early childhood education which makes me very happy because in the past we've never seen anything for early education only for school age teachers. So some current websites or organizations to contact with the Rainbow House Ontario they have an excellent resource called Building bridges and that is written for early childhood educators and there are so many incredible ideas in there and just different ways of thinking about how to be inclusive and it will really broaden people's minds.

Also the Trauner District School Board has also an LGBTQ inclusive curriculum and it's fantastic at adapting activities so that a lot of their activities can be adapted for younger children. Also a program at Kitchener-Waterloo. It's called OK to be me. Which is a counseling service for LGBT youth and their families and we also have a support group and social group for those kids. But on their website they have resources for both children, youth and for parents and teachers as well. Another really great Web site is called GLSEN the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, and any of these Web sites would be a great starting point.

SPREEUWENBERG: What's the Web site your URL for GLSEN.

SECRETT: I believe it's just www.glsen.org

SPREEUWENBERG: Now let's say I am the director of a child care program and we are inclusive of LGBTQ families and just inclusive generally for all families. And I want to make it clear to anyone who visits our center that we're inclusive of LGBTQ families.

What is there something that I can display or show you know really easily and quickly that we are inclusive?

SECRETT: Absolutely no common symbol for the LGBTQ community that people would recognize right away would be the rainbow flag. Now rainbow flag, there are a little window decals that can be purchased. I know this can be done online but also through there is a store in Toronto called out on the street and they sell them as well.

I think again contacting the pride committee of your home city they would also be able to help find any stickers or a window decals of the sort. But the rainbow flag is very common. Another decal that can be used is all families matter, the rainbow colors as well so people will know what you're talking about. But the rainbow definitely is common.


Gender diversity is a complex topic and especially in the context of an early childhood educator and in that setting. If you were to give a simple message that you could carry with them about gender diversity that would make a difference. What would that be?

SECRETT: I think that children need to be affirmed for whatever gender choices that they may need to create an environment where children can express gender as they like and where we don't make assumptions about the meaning of children's behavior choices. I think people need to keep in mind that gender behavior may or may not be indicative of an LGBTQ identity later in life. Ok I've had many parents be really upset at pick up of for instance here's a very typical one and it saddens me to still see this a father or mother being upset that their son is playing in the dramatic play area with babies or you know they say oh he's always playing with those girls and those babies and sometimes even dressed up in the clothes that we don't like,like a dress.

And I think I haven't asked specifically but I do believe parents fear that their child will grow up to be gay if they're doing that. But I tend to tell my parents without getting into that topic I just say you know what. He is acting out where he sees at home and he's going to grow up to be a wonderful father someday if he chooses. You know in our dramatic play area that's where children express what's going on for them and their life. And he being loving two babies right now you know he's probably going to be very indicative of who's been growing up to be a father or parent. So good for you. You know the gender expression really isn't black and white even for those who identify as gay.

You know I can I add something else in there, I want educators to be really thinking about how restricting it is to be forced into a box. And here's a perfect example. How often do educators still ask all the boys to line up at the door. And then all the girls to line up at the door. I have a little secret for you Ron and for anyone listening. The children may not have decided their gender yet. That's a little mind blowing to think about but it's up to them it's their bodies and we shouldn't be giving them all these messages all through their early years. What gender is that they are because they may not have decided.

SPREEUWENBERG: And I guess what role does an early child educator play and having these conversations with parents who are uncomfortable with these topics. Do you think that they should take you know more of a leadership role in having these conversations or should they sort of leave it up to the families.

SECRETT: I think I think anyone who would express discomfort or could be visibly upset that this is being talked about in our classrooms I think that it's almost beyond the job of the ECE. I think at that point if a parent is that upset that they be sent to the administrator of child care only because I think the situation quite likely cannot be resolved in a short conversation.

You know I when I was holding a workshop I actually had one ECE tell me that she was she was the supervisor of a center. She said that one family ended up leaving the center because they weren't happy with LGBTQ topic at all being talked about in the classroom. And you know I looked at that administrator and I said you know what. That's OK.

It's totally ok that they left because they knew what they were signing up for when they when they enrolled. And this will make space for someone who will be accepting and welcoming to any other diverse people. So it just wasn't a good fit. And you know there can be very we like I said earlier we're not trying to change anybody's own beliefs. And that would be for an educator themselves or the parents. But if you are enrolled in an organization then you do need to follow the philosophy of the center.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah. And that's what I think is really a key part of our message is that it's not specific to anybody or anyone you are just being inclusive. Generally within your early years program and you're giving children the right to a non-discriminate environment. And I think that's a really great way to think about it is again you know you're not being looking at things from an individual's perspective you're just saying as a child care program we're inclusive for all families or anything else and I think awesome.

And now here's a couple of questions that I like to ask everybody before we wrap things up. I know you mentioned a couple specific sources where people could go any other sources that we missed where you go to get information about early childhood education generally or LGBTQ families in early childhood education is there anything we missed there.

SECRETT: When I was treating Rainbow Family visibility in the early years I was looking for other large cities in Canada who may also have been a early child educator doing the same kind of workshops and I couldn't find anything. So it is true that this topic is not being talked about enough for early childhood education where we were empowering everyone. This is where the seeds of exception should be should be planted. So I will say that in Ontario I do travel as well. But my workshop can be found through www.secrettevents.com

My workshop really does talk about current terminology in a very playful way and does work through or it has early childhood educators really looking at case scenarios and how to embrace teachable moments within their child care so it tries to keep things nice and light. And I found that every single time I presented educators go away feeling a lot more comfortable with the topic and that's where we want people we want to feel that that there are a lot of allies in the world and that children are getting those seeds of acceptance nice and early in life.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. And maybe also a call to action to all the other people out there that are passionate about this subject to do training or workshops as well like if you're in the US in a specific city and you're looking up for these kind of resources locally and they don't exist. I think that's a great opportunity.

Yeah the more we the more we talk about this the more I see it is very important to address now. Last question what excites you most about early childhood education right now.

SECRETT: I'm not sure if it's built right now but the learning never ends. It just never ends. And I think right now there is a huge change in people's perception of the field. And a lot of growth has been happening with advocacy is having our work seen as valuable and being paid for that as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: In your time in early childhood education would you say that the pace of learning has increased in recent years?

SECRETT: I think it depends on the actual individual early childhood educator and how passionate they are about the field and how much learning that they want to do because the amount of conferences, workshops, PD events that are out there for easy just shows me that people are so passionate about what they do.

So really doesn't matter what city you're in in the U.S. or Canada if you are working as an early childhood educator. What excites me the most is that the learning opportunities the professional development opportunities are so vast. On any topic in the field. Just keep learning is my advice you know because in the end it only helps the children.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally And this is something that's come up before which I think is a very good point is as an early childhood educator you control your own destiny and that like you said there's lots of resources out there. And if you want to go and find out more and learn more. Expand your base of knowledge. It's all up to you and you can go there and do it. The information's there. The opportunities are there. So I think that's a really great point to finish on. Shelley thanks so much for coming on the show. It was really great having you. This a super important topic and I think you speak very wisely about it. So thanks again for coming on the show.

SECRETT: Ron thank you so much for having me. Seriously this I do feel very strong about this topic and I'm happy to share it with your listeners.

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