Q&A: How a Sense of Belonging in Schools Supports Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth

Many adolescents struggle with a sense of belonging during middle and high school years, but these challenges are often exacerbated for transgender and gender diverse (TGD) youth. TGD youth face higher rates of bullying and are more like to experience mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.

A new study,  “Associations Between School-Related Factors and Mental Health among Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth,” explores some of the ways that schools can offer critical support for TGD youth.  The study was coauthored by Katie Parodi, a PhD candidate in counseling psychology and BU Wheelock Glenn Fellow, with BU Wheelock’s Drs. Melissa Holt and Jennifer Greif Green and doctoral student Tanvi Shah, along with researchers from BU’s School of Public Health and Harvard University.

BU Wheelock sat down with Parodi to learn more about the study.

BU Wheelock: What do you see as the most pressing issue facing schools as far as supporting transgender and gender diverse youth?

Katie Parodi

Parodi: We need to address the high prevalence of bullying, including identity-based bullying, that TGD youth face in the school setting. Studies have frequently shown that TGD students are more likely to report being bullied than their peers, and there’s mounting evidence of the link between bullying and disproportionately high mental and behavioral health concerns among TGD youth.

BU Wheelock:  How do transgender students differ in their needs from students who may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer?

Parodi: That’s an important thing to think about. Pioneering research in the field often examines the experiences, outcomes, and needs of LGBTQ individuals together as one monolithic population, but more recently, there’s been considerable movement towards decoupling gender identity and sexual orientation and understanding the unique experiences of TGD.

What we’ve learned from emerging research, and importantly, from TGD students themselves, is the importance of school environments that affirm and support a student’s gender identity. So, for example, being able to access school-based facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms; participate in K-12 athletics; and use a chosen name and pronouns in accordance with one’s gender identity. These things are critical for supporting and affirming TGD students in the school setting.

BU Wheelock: Your recent study highlights the importance of school connectedness for TGD. What’s been your biggest takeaway from this study?

Parodi: Our study found that the more TGD feel like they belong at school, the fewer mental health issues they are likely to report. We also found that having a Gender-Sexuality Alliance in one’s school was linked with better mental health for transgender male and nonbinary assigned female at birth students.

BU Wheelock: How can schools and education professionals best support these students?

Parodi: A critical step is creating truly inclusive, affirming, supportive, and safe school environments. A continued emphasis on school safety—which includes school anti-bullying and harassment policies—and fostering supportive school climates is key in addressing this pressing issue, as well as tailoring school-based prevention and intervention programs to include the unique needs and experiences of TGD youth. Some other include partnering with TGD youth and incorporating their perspectives into the drafting of school policies; seeking their feedback on inclusive curricula; and acknowledging and highlighting their considerable resilience.

There are many fantastic organizations that provide clear information and guidance on what this looks like. For example, the National Association for School Psychologists provides a helpful overview regarding gender-inclusive schools. The Project AVANT research team at BU Wheelock has a forthcoming manuscript led by Tanvi Shah which examines what schools, communities, and families can do to best support TGD youth, as told through TGD youths’ perspectives. We hope this perspective will help schools outline how they can best support their students.

BU Wheelock: This is critical work, but we know it is only one of the many projects you’re working on. Can you share some of your other work?

Parodi: I am currently working on a manuscript with Dr. Holt and collaborators on the mental health and victimization experiences of gender minority youth, with special attention paid to protective factors—or characteristics that reduce negative outcomes. I also have an abiding research interest in temporal trends in child and adolescent mental health. My dissertation research focuses on time trends in parent-reported child and adolescent anxiety, and I have a current paper underway with BU Wheelock graduate student Emily Barnes, and Drs. Holt, Green, and Amie Grills, which reviews U.S. nationally representative data sets that could be used to estimate the prevalence of youth anxiety.