More than a rainbow flag: Researchers dig deep on the experiences of LGBTIQ families
In November 2017, Australian’s voted ‘yes’ on marriage equality. For two researchers from The University of Melbourne, the vote became a ‘pivot point’ at which the need for early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals needed, more than ever, to critically reflect on how their settings included lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) parents and their children.
The Sector connected with lead researcher Xinyun Liang about her review of recent literature, framed by an ecological systems approach, which aimed to identify key influences on the lived experiences of LGBTIQ parents and their children in the context of early learning centres.
Advocacy from within – parents scaffolding educator learning
In the first instance, Ms Liang was asked about what her review uncovered about the lived experience of families who identified as LGBTIQ, when it came to engaging with the early education and care (ECEC) sector.
Here, Ms Liang said, LGBTIQ parents tend to be proactive in ensuring that their families and their children are recognised, represented and fairly treated – regardless of the preparedness of their child’s early learning centre to receive them.
“Many LGBTIQ parents actively support educators’ professional learning by disclosing their family composition, suggesting resources, and providing information on how to use these resources. The fact that LGBTIQ parents are advocating for their families indicates the need for the early childhood education and care sector to be more proactive in promoting a sense of belonging of these families,” she said.
The role of culture
The bulk of the LGBTIQ parents identified in research literature were Caucasian, lived in or near a metropolitan area, were well educated, and had well-paid jobs. In light of this, The Sector asked Ms Liang about cultural dimensions to the notion of ‘family’, and if LGBTIQ families were more accepted in some communities than others.
“Our research highlighted the difficulties in recruiting LGBTIQ parents to participate in research that would more accurately reflect diverse household incomes, education levels, and ethnicity,” Ms Liang said.
These limitations, she added, mean that conclusions drawn about how cultural and socio-economic differences may influence the lived experiences of LGBTIQ-parented families in ECEC settings may reflect a limited vision of a lived reality.
“While attitudes of ECEC educators towards LGBTIQ-parented families are reported to be positive, and parental attitudes reported to be neutral to positive, there is a need for research to include a broader population sample (to be truly representative)”.
When asked about the role that educators and leaders have to play in challenging biases and discrimination in their communities, the researchers found abundant opportunity for ECEC professionals to create, shape and lead culture.
“When educators develop learning partnerships with families, recognising family diversity is unavoidable,” Ms Liang said.
“Educators have an opportunity to create a classroom and service culture in which diversity is visible and welcomed. They guide children’s understanding of family diversity. In this way, educators become agents of change. We are witnessing more ECEC educators taking up this advocacy role,” she continued, highlighting the importance of significant adults in children’s lives modelling respect for different family structures as children learn from those around them.
“How parents perceive and interact with other parents in a classroom community influences all parents’ sense of belonging. This sense of belonging influences the level of involvement with educators, which in turn impacts on children’s outcomes. This is particularly important for LGBTIQ parents who are vulnerable to rejection and for LGBTIQ-parented children who are at risk of experiencing silence and discrimination.”
Paint the dollhouse rainbow – children exploring LGBTIQ issues in play
The Sector was interested in exploring the role of children in establishing a sense of belonging and acceptance, based on the researchers choice to use ecological systems theory in their exploration.
Here, Ms Liang said, children’s knowledge about gender and (hetero)sexuality is reflected in their play and in this way, children reproduce or disrupt the heteronormativity through their relationships with peers and the environment.
“Research shows that children regard being able to choose with whom to start a family as a matter of fairness, and they are open to discussions about different types of family structures and can include non-traditional families in their play.”
While educators may assume that children are innocent and “in need of protection” from discussions about LGBTIQ issues, “children are both curious about and capable of understanding gender, (hetero)sexuality, as well as the differences in family structure,” Ms Liang noted.
“Children may question what they perceive to be different. However, the value they attach to that difference is learnt from significant adults in their environment. For this reason, adults (both parents and educators) need to be aware of children’s developing theories about (hetero)sexuality. This is essential to support the shared construction of respectful and inclusive beliefs about family structure. In this way, children can be empowered to challenge the heteronormative cultures, both in ECEC settings and throughout their lives.”
Progressing with practical measures
In terms of practical measures that educators and leaders can take in order to offer more accepting and inclusive environments, the researchers offered the following:
Strengthening reflective practice is key: “at individual, centre and sector levels, ECEC professionals need to think about their beliefs and attitudes, knowledge and practices regarding diverse family structures,” Ms Liang said.
By doing so, they will be able to identify and challenge the heteronormative assumptions that may underpin their pedagogical decisions.
Intentional teaching: educators need to be deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in their decisions and actions. Developing relationships with LGBTIQ-parented families that enable the parents and their children to feel a sense of belonging, and making pedagogical choices which embrace LGBTIQ-parented families and their children.
Environmental considerations: while immediate changes can be made to the physical environment, it is important also to view social and emotional wellbeing as elements of the environment which engages children and families, and sets a foundation for learning and development.
“Educators need to assess whether they have created a classroom environment and culture that welcomes LGBTIQ-parented families and their children. Posters displayed at child level should reflect diverse family structures. Conversations with children about families should encourage understanding of differing family structures. Photographs of all children and their differing family structures should be displayed at child eye level in the room,” Ms Liang said.
“Educational leaders and centre directors should lead learning about the lived experiences of LGBTIQ-parented families, regardless of the presence of LGBTIQ-parented families in their services. Professional learning in this regard could assist educators to create and sustain a culture of inclusion that reflects and celebrates all forms of family diversity.”
Policies and practices: The ECEC service, Ms Liang recommended, should review its policies, procedures, and practices against a mirror of inclusion.
“Our research revealed the urgent need for resources to equip the sector with the necessary knowledge and practical skills to support LGBTIQ-parented families’ sense of belonging,” she added.
In summing up her findings, Ms Liang said the most pressing priority should be further research to inform evidence-based practices to support the inclusion of LGBTIQ-parented families in ECEC settings, and into how to best equip early childhood educators to ensure that all children and their families feel a sense of belonging and representation in their early childhood education settings.
To access the research, Towards creating inclusive environments for LGBTIQ-parented families in early childhood education and care settings: A review of the literature, please see here.
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