The number of U.S. youth who identify as transgender has doubled over the past five years to about 300,000 individuals, according to a comprehensive new report from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This finding may suggest that more young people feel comfortable identifying themselves as transgender. Still, there remains a lot that schools can do to support transgender and gender-questioning students. These young people face a difficult path.
Discrimination and mental health challenges
More than 70% of transgender and nonbinary students have experienced discrimination at school. Transgender students avoid spaces like bathrooms (82%), locker rooms (69%) and gym class (60%) at far higher rates than their cisgender peers (25-30%). Fewer than a third of transgender and nonbinary youth find their homes to be gender-affirming. And only about half find their schools to be so.
Such stresses put transgender youth at greater risk for mental health challenges. Recent studies have shown a two- to threefold increase in their risk of depression and suicidality. The Trevor Project reports that nearly one in five transgender and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide. Transgender young people also face a higher risk of substance use.
How can schools help?
To mark Transgender Awareness Week, here are four ways schools and districts can support the mental health of transgender students.
Practical advice for teachers and school leaders
1. Don’t wait for students to ask for help.
Archie Tyson has devoted his career to educating and supporting students. He has worked as a K-12 principal, dean, teacher and coach. Tyson now serves as Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Products and Services at education publishing and assessments provider Pearson.
He knows many students won’t ask for help addressing mental health issues. So he gives teachers simple advice: “Be nosy!” Tyson explains, “if you know your students, you’re better able to see when changes occur. But if you’re not paying enough attention, you probably won’t pick up on things.”
For transgender students, as for other students, behaviors to watch for include pulling away from you and others, low energy and sudden behavioral changes such as a newfound aggressiveness.
Teachers and educators don’t need to go on gut alone, however. “Triangulate your observations with data,” Tyson says. “Has there been a drop-off in grades? Has there been a drop-off in attendance?”
And don’t let uncertainty freeze you, Tyson says. A teacher “doesn’t need to be the holder of expert knowledge to take action and help.” You may not have the skill set to counsel a transgender student facing mental health struggles, he notes, but you can connect them with people who do, such as school psychologists and nurses.
2. Provide the right professional development.
Teachers may want to create inclusive classroom environments. But research indicates that some may feel unprepared to support trans students and most do not receive specific training to support transgender or other LGBTQ students.
Teachers should ask for help, too, Tyson says. “There are experts in the area of gender identity. There may even be experts in your building. Ask yourself: Which teachers, schools and districts are building a really inclusive environment for all learners, including transgender students? What can you learn from them?”
The responsibility can’t fall entirely on the shoulders of teachers and staff, however. School and district leaders can help by providing the right professional development. “Front line training can get teachers out of that first phase of doubt and uncertainty,” Tyson says.
One recent study found that such training increased staff members’ comfort levels in supporting LGBTQ students and that more than half of respondents were “actively applying” what they learned from the training within their school setting three months later.
3. Recruit transgender teachers and staff.
Representation matters. Schools and districts recognize this truth when they invest in diversity, equity and inclusion. These efforts should include hiring transgender and nonbinary teachers and staff.
However, transgender educators often face discrimination in the workplace. Tyson says district and school leaders can “open doors” and build a welcoming environment for transgender staff.
Doing so can profoundly impact transgender students and the rest of the student population. An NPR survey of transgender teachers found that many feel they “play a vital — even life-saving — role through their visibility.” In the words of one transgender teacher, “My experiences have taught me sensitivity to differences, the importance of representation and inclusivity in education and the importance of practicing empathy in the classroom.”
4. Analyze your mental health screening technology and tools.
The U.S. surgeon general has highlighted “the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.” This crisis has hit transgender students hard.
One of the best ways to support your students’ mental health is to ensure your school or district has the right tools to identify mental health issues early and connect students with the necessary support.
Mental health assessments are a critical component of a well-rounded support system for transgender students and all other K-12 students. Universal mental health screening proves particularly effective. This quick and easy-to-implement process helps identify students who are at risk of issues such as anxiety and depression. Following up with direct evaluations can help pinpoint concerns.
Ready to learn more? Contact Pearson to learn how our assessment tools can help your school or district prioritize mental health for all students. Learn more at PearsonAssessments.com/MentalHealth.