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Starting Small: Why Single-Gender Education Isn’t Just For High School

Photo credit: The Agnes Irwin School

Photo credit: The Agnes Irwin School

While in school, children are actually learning the four R’s: reading, writing, arithmetic and gender roles. The fall play asks girls to audition for the princess, boys for the knight. Boys are encouraged to play flag football at recess while the girls jump rope. Elementary school can set the tone for children’s behavior.

“From the minute they come into the world, our children are socialized to be boys and girls as defined by our culture,” says Donna Lindner, Director of the Lower School program at The Agnes Irwin School, an all-girls, PreK-12 school in Rosemont. “They don’t learn to be their best selves; they learn to be the selves everyone else believes they should be.”

Gender roles are typically already instilled by family members and media portrayals before children even start school, while societal pressure and inherent competition between the sexes can disrupt any positive atmosphere.

“[It’s] when a baby girl is consistently dressed in pink by her grandmother, or a male toddler is given a fire truck while his twin sister is given a doll,” says Lindner. “Implicit messages children receive about who they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to act are unconsciously internalized at a very early age.”

That’s where single-gender education is influential – children are inspired to act as individuals, free from gender-conforming restraints.

“The wonderful advantage of starting single-gender education at an early age is that in the school, parents will find a partner whose role includes offering their children a different narrative about the possibilities of what being a successful boy or girl can mean,” says Lindner.

Most parents operate with the belief that single-gender education is best suited to high school years. But by entering this setting in later stages of developmental growth, they are missing out on the formative years where gender identity plants its roots.

Lindner argues that parents follow this trend due to a lack of information. She suggests the place to start is with simple research – starting with the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and the International Boys’ Schools Coalition, and moving closer to home.

“Visit a single-gender school,” Lindner says. “Ask the teachers questions, and listen to the expertise that comes from being given the opportunity to gain a specialized understanding of a single gender. Carefully observe and talk to the students. Pay special attention to the early grades, but also notice and speak with the older students as well.”

Another suggestion for parents? Don’t assume your children will benefit from the same kind of education you received.

“Be aware of the difference between how students behave and interact in an all-girls or all-boys school compared to a co-ed school, especially if you are a parent who attended co-ed schools,” Lindner says.

Lindner’s advice comes with years of expertise and observance of the young girls she works with daily.

“There is something incredibly powerful about being in the presence of little people every day as they try to make sense of the world they inhabit,” Lindner says. “I love watching children think through challenges and proudly find answers, whether in academics, with their friends, or in creating their own, broader understanding of the world.”

For more information on single-gender education at The Agnes Irwin School, visit www.agnesirwin.org.