Early childhood teachers will be encouraged to intervene in “gendered play”, identify toys and books that reinforce gender stereotypes and avoid gender-specific language under a Victorian government plan to tackle family violence through preschools.
Teachers will also be asked to reflect on their own “conscious and unconscious biases”, “unpack their understanding of gender and gender identity” and avoid using terms such as “good morning princess” or “boys don’t cry”.
Fresh details of the respectful relationships training the government plans to provide to 4000 preschool teachers have emerged, with the public release of a professional learning kit that was used in a trial late last year.
As The Australian reported last month, the Victorian Department of Education is seeking a provider to further develop and deliver training to boost the capacity of early childhood educators to implement respectful relationships into their programs.
The $3.4 million initiative is part of the Andrews Labor government’s $21.8m Respectful Relationships education package for schools, inspired by the Royal Commission into Family Violence and set to be rolled out to schools over the next two years.
Challenging gender stereotypes appears to be the centrepiece of the preschool program.
“Do you critically reflect on or intentionally observe gendered play?” trainers were instructed to ask participants. “Can you or have you worked with children to develop different storylines in their play? Have you intervened to change gendered play?”
According to the training kit, evidence suggested that strict adherence to gender stereotypes contributed to gender-based and family violence, of which most victims were women. “As rigid attitudes toward gender are shifted through respectful relationships education, evidence suggests that family violence will reduce,” it said.
However, critics of the program have queried its preoccupation with masculinity and gender stereotypes, particularly when applied to children as young as three or four years of age.
As the federal government’s own guidelines on infant and childhood developmental milestones point out, a typical three-year-old can label their own gender and demonstrate knowledge of gender-role stereotypes.
By four or five, a child may show a stronger preference for same-sex playmates, may have been seen reinforcing gender-role norms with peers and may show bouts of aggression with peers.
All behaviours are considered developmentally normal.
Centre for Independent Studies senior research fellow Jennifer Buckingham described the program as “objectionable”. “Firstly, no evidence is provided to show that gender norms are the key contributor to domestic violence and that this can be fixed by encouraging kids to play with gender-neutral toys,” she said.
“Secondly, it is pretty patronising to preschool teachers to think they have to be trained out of having unconscious gender biases.’’
Dr Buckingham said research had shown that behavioural issues in preschoolers, such as aggression, were often the result of poor oral language skills.
Opposition spokeswoman for early childhood Georgie Crozier said there was “ something truly Orwellian in auditing children’s toys and games in kindergartens”.
Early Childhood Minister Jenny Mikakos said the program would give teachers the tools to treat children equally, and to help them build healthy friendships.