Supporting Early Career Development of Transgender and Gender Expansive Children in Elementary School

By Nathan Mather, Ellen H. McWhirter, and Peter P. Ehlinger

On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to protect transgender employees against workplace discrimination based on sex (Sanger-Katz & Green, 2020), and in NCDA’s Career Convergence, Motulsky and Frank (2018) articulated helpful strategies for career counseling with transgender adults. Optimal support of transgender career development, however, begins in elementary school, because in early childhood, gender identity is usually solidified (Keo-Meier & Ehrensaft, 2018) and career development initiated (Low et al., 2005; Watson et al., 2015). Gender can influence career development (Howard & Walsh, 2011) with implications for wellness and career outcomes (Low et al., 2005; White Hughto et al., 2015). Our focus in this article is on transgender and gender expansive (TGE) children. Transgender children are those whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth, and gender expansive children is an umbrella term for those whose gender identities and/or expression are inconsistent with cultural and social expectations (Keo-Meier & Ehrensaft, 2018). A national survey by GLSEN found that 8% of elementary school children reported that they do not conform to traditional gender expectations (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012). Bullying and harassment as a result of being misunderstood and marginalized (Reisner et al., 2016; White Hughto et al., 2015) have adverse effects on TGE student attendance, grades, and educational aspirations (GLSEN & Harrison Interactive, 2012), and consequently, their career opportunities and financial security in adulthood (White Hughto et al., 2015). These adverse effects are even more pronounced for TGE children with intersecting marginalized identities (e.g. BIPOC and undocumented TGE children; Singh et al., 2015; James et al., 2017). The provision of gender affirmative career development support in elementary school is one component of what must be a larger effort to increase the safety and well-being of TGE individuals in school (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012) and, later, in the workplace (Dispenza, et al., 2012; White Hughto et al., 2015). Early exposure to gender affirmative career education and activities may help protect TGE children from some of the deleterious effects of living in a cissexist society, normalizing their experiences as they explore, engage in activities, and develop interests and capacities.

Children’s Gender Identity and Career Development

By late elementary school, children begin matching their interests and strengths with vocational pathways, eliminating options based on what they see as appropriate for themselves (Howard & Walsh, 2011). Career-related interests tend to become solidified by age 12 and remain relatively stable through adulthood (Low et al., 2005), underscoring the importance of early elementary school interventions that support children’s exploration of interests and that challenge identity-bound limitations. Gendered socialization to the world of work that reinforces traditional, binary gender roles without critical reflection may complicate and constrain TGE children’s exploration of interests, particularly when this hidden curriculum of cissexism intersects with other systems of oppression in schools, including racism, classism, and ableism (Crenshaw, 1991; Rosiek et al., 2017).

Over the past fifty years, efforts made in elementary school career interventions to widen children’s perspectives on gendered work have focused on introducing children to men and women in careers non-traditional for their sex (e.g., Karniol & Gal-Disegni, 2009). These exposures, in conjunction with evolving notions of gender roles, aimed to broaden careers viewed as acceptable for cisgender people, but have not included TGE students.

Photo By Daniele Levis Pelusi On Unsplash

Fostering the Career Development of TGE Children

Below are specific recommendations for career professionals to foster the career development of TGE children:

1. Reflect on Your Biases

  • Reflect on your own biases about transgender people and gendered career pathways so that you can interrupt stereotypes.
  • Reflect on how your own experiences of gender role messages in childhood reinforced and/or limited your career aspirations in order to increase empathy for TGE children.
  • If you are cisgender, consider how cisgender privilege impacted your early career development.
  • Notice and interrupt moments in which you provide more positive reinforcement for children who engage in activities that “fit better” with their perceived gender, or when you withhold praise for gender-nonconforming activities (Granger et al., 2017)
  • Notice and interrupt ways in which you reinforce binary conceptualization of gender (e.g., saying boys and girls; you guys) and instead include non-binary students in your language (e.g., y’all, students, all genders).

2. Advocate for Structural Change

  • Develop and support policies at national, state, and district levels to protect the rights and well-being of TGE students, as safety is a prerequisite to career education (e.g., see Orr & Baum, n.d. and Human Rights Campaign, www.hrc.org).
  • Create working groups to make extracurricular programming (e.g., sports, clubs, etc.) more inclusive of TGE students, thereby providing more learning experiences that build self-efficacy and outcome expectations.
  • Stand with transgender colleagues and TGE students when they experience harassment and microaggressions in the school.

3. Make your Career Curriculum Trans-Affirming

  • Acknowledge in career education that TGE children’s ability to access and attempt a variety of activities, particularly activities that are gendered, is critical for their healthy vocational development.
  • Provide opportunities for children of all genders to engage in a broad range of activities so that self-efficacy and outcome expectations are not limited by gender identity (Lent, et al., 1994).
  • Teach about transgender people, especially Black, Indigenous and other transgender people of color, who contributed across disciplines of science, literature, politics, and arts (e.g., see Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org).
  • Promote and use gender-affirmative materials, including resources specifically for TGE children and their families, on school websites.
  • Use gender-inclusive language when discussing careers (e.g., firefighter instead of fireman; Vervecken & Hannover, 2015).

4. Engage with TGE Children and Transgender Communities

  • Express confidence that TGE children can be successful in a particular domain, regardless of gender or other identities.
  • Include transgender professionals from diverse careers and cultural backgrounds among speakers at the school for career days and career panels.
  • Invite students from middle and high school Gender and Sexuality Alliance clubs to volunteer in the school.
  • Hire transgender consultants to offer expertise as gender-affirming career development activities and content are constructed.

Possibilities and Freedom

Transforming classrooms, schools, districts, and national policies to protect, affirm, and support the career development of TGE children requires sustained and collaborative effort and dedication. Gender affirmative career development efforts help pave a way for TGE children to experience validation and representation as they begin career exploration, resulting in greater possibilities and freedom when they enter the world of work. This direction fits with the broader aim to optimize thriving for TGE children.



Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039

Dispenza, F., Watson, L. B., Chung, Y. B., & Brack, G. (2012). Experience of career-related discrimination for female-to-male transgender persons: A qualitative study. Career Development Quarterly, 60(1), 65–81. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2012.00006.x

GLSEN & Harris Interactive. (2012). Playgrounds and prejudice: Elementary school climate in the United States, A survey of students and teachers. GLSEN. https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/Playgrounds_Prejudice.pdf

Granger, K. L., Hanish, L., Kornienko, O., & Bradley, R. (2017). Preschool teachers’ facilitation of gender-typed and gender- neutral activities during free play. Sex Roles, 76(7), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0675-1

Howard, K. A. S. & Walsh, M. E. (2011). Children’s conceptions of career choice and attainment: Model development. Journal of Career Development, 38(3), 256–271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845310365851

James, S. E., Brown, C., & Wilson, I. (2017). 2015 U.S. transgender survey: Report on the experiences of Black respondents. National Center for Transgender Equality, Black Trans Advocacy, & National Black Justice Coalition. https://www.transequality.org/sites/-default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Black-Respondents-Report.pdf

Karniol, R. & Gal-Disegni, M. (2009). The impact of gender-fair versus gender-stereotyped basal readers on 1st-grade children’s gender stereotypes: A natural experiment. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 23(4), 411–420. https://doi.org/10.1080/02568540909594670

Keo-Meier, C. & Ehrensaft, D. (2018). The gender affirmative model: An interdisciplinary approach to supporting transgender and gender expansive children. American Psychological Association.

Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Monograph: Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45(1), 79-122. https://doi.org/10.1006/jvbe.1994.1027

Low, K. S. D., Yoon, M., Roberts, B. W., & Rounds, J. (2005). The stability of vocational interests from early adolescence to middle adulthood: A quantitative review of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 131(5), 713-737. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.131.5.713

Motulsky, S. & Frank, E. (2018). Creating positive spaces for career counseling with transgender clients. Career Convergence. https://careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/159199/_self/CC_layout_details/true

Orr, A., & Baum, J. (n.d.) Schools in transition: A guide for supporting transgender students in K-12 schools. Human Rights Campaign. https://www.hrc.org/resources/schools-in-transition-a-guide-for-supporting-transgender-students-in-k-12-s

Reisner, S. L., Poteat, T., Keatley, J. A., Cabral, M., Mothopeng, T., Dunham, E., Holland, C.E., Max, R., & Baral, S. D. (2016). Global health burden and needs of transgender populations: A review. The Lancet, 388, 412-436. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(16)00684-X

Rosiek, J., Schmitke, A., & Heffernan, J. (2017). Queering teacher education curriculum: A case study of lessons learned in the transformation of a teacher education program. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 19(1&2), 3-17.

Sanger-Katz, M. & Green, E. L. (2020). Supreme court expansion of transgender rights undercuts Trump restrictions. The New York Times, p. A21. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/upshot/transgender-rights-trump.html

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Vervecken, D. & Hannover, B. (2015). Yes I can! Effects of gender fair job descriptions on children’s perceptions of job status, job difficulty, and vocational self-efficacy. Social Psychology, 46(2), 76–92. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000229

Watson, M., Nota, L., & McMahon, M. (2015). Child career development: present and future trends. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 15(2), 95–97. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10775-015-9308-4

White Hughto, J. M., Reisner, S. L., & Pachankis, J. E. (2015). Transgender stigma and health: A critical review of stigma determinants, mechanisms, and interventions. Social Science and Medicine, 147, 222-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.11.010



Nathan MatherNathan Mather, M.S. (he/him) is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon. His research interests focus on the co-occurring processes of vocational and critical consciousness development, as well as examining how oppressive practices and policies can be replaced with alternatives to facilitate healing and thriving for students and workers. He can be reached at nmather@uoregon.edu




Ellen Hawley McwhirterEllen Hawley McWhirter, PhD (she/her) is the Ann Swindells Professor in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon and director of the Spanish Language Psychological Services and Research Specialization. Her scholarly interests include Latinx adolescent career development, critical consciousness, and adolescent risk behavior. She can be reached at ellenmcw@uoregon.edu




Peter P EhlingerPeter P. Ehlinger, M.S. (he/him) is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on developing culturally-sensitive interventions for trauma, alcohol and substance use, with a focus on trans and gender-nonconforming folks. He can be reached at ppe@uoregon.edu 



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Sue Motulsky   on Sunday 08/02/2020 at 04:12 PM

Thank you Nathan, Ellen, and Peter for this much needed article on early career development for TGE children. Kimberly Howard and I are working on a lit review of career development and trans/non-binary and there is very, very little research or writing on trans or non-binary children or adolescents--definitely an area that needs more attention. Wonderful suggestions. Thanks, Sue

Nathan Mather   on Sunday 08/02/2020 at 06:18 PM

@Sue Motulsky, thank you for your kind words and for the work y'all are doing--we look forward to reading your lit review!
Best, Nathan

mary frances fitzgerald   on Tuesday 08/11/2020 at 02:14 PM

Hi there: as a school counsellor I really appreciate your article. I will be sharing it with my provincial counselling colleagues in Alberta.

Nathan Mather   on Wednesday 08/12/2020 at 12:25 PM

@mary frances fitzgerald, thank you!

China Yang   on Thursday 05/30/2024 at 04:06 PM

This article makes me extremely happy and hopeful as a school counselor in training! There needs to be more awareness, advocacy, and change for all students of identity.

Grace Cormier   on Saturday 06/01/2024 at 02:47 PM

School counselors have an opportunity to help future and develop career development within student populations in order to build upon self-efficacy and outcome expectations. It is within this profession that we must be able to advise under served populations of students to foster normalization of their experience as they develop their own interests and apacities- within the burden of gender identity expectations.

Micol Striuli   on Sunday 06/02/2024 at 08:48 AM

This is a thoughtful article that takes into account the changing world of today. Many of our younger students are still trying to develop a sense of self and it is important to show them many different examples of what and who they want to become when they are older, rather than limiting their path to a conventional one based on heteronormative ideas of gender and career.

Marcela Garces   on Monday 06/03/2024 at 12:25 PM

What a powerful article! It's wonderful to have these essential conversations with adults and children. As an aspiring school counselor, I look to check my biases often in an effort to promote an all-inclusive environment. I will be sure to reference this article along the way. Thank you!!

Justine C.    on Monday 06/03/2024 at 12:49 PM

“Early exposure to gender affirmative career education and activities may help protect TGE children from some of the deleterious effects of living in a cissexist society, normalizing their experiences as they explore, engage in activities, and develop interests and capacities.”
A necessary article which offers the school counselor the opportunity to reflect on the TGE student’s perspective as well as putting forth the information and education that is needed to move forward with the student and understanding their goals, missions and dreams for their future. In addition to all of the points in the article it is equally important to include representations of gender diversity in curricula, textbooks, and other educational materials which can assist in validations and experiences of TGE students while promoting an understanding in the educational setting for all students and educators.
Outstanding article! Thank you!

Leah Abbate   on Monday 06/03/2024 at 08:47 PM

This article does a profound job at highlighting the importance of supporting early career development of TGE children, the areas which need improvement, and specific ways in which we can foster this development. I found this article to provide insight on how to support and provide early exposure to gender affirmative career education and activities. The specific recommendations which were provided are ones which I will continually be aware of, engage in, and advocate for within my role as a counselor.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.