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Role Models & Social Referencing

Society plays a fundamental role in determining how a child will engage in activities. 

Children learn from a very early age what it is to be a boy or a girl through a process called 'social referencing' (Cigman, 2017).

Boys are exposed to men and boys conducting themselves in particular ways from a very early age and they absorb what is means to be male. Subtle observations such as girls wearing pink, or women cooking and cleaning, or girls writing and drawing and men using technology can lead to a distorted view of what it means to be 'a boy' or 'a girl.' 

We should ask ourselves how this message is permeating into the lives of the young children in our care. Whilst much of this happens outside of Early Years settings, practitioners can also be caught out unintentionally stereotyping boys and girls. 


As frustrating as it might be for Early Educators to know society does this to boys and girls, it is hard for us to make meaningful changes before they reach us. Those of us lucky to care for babies can make some meaningful impact (albeit for 8 hours a day). However the majority of us don't come into contact with these children until they are 2, 3 or 4.  A lot of the above is engrained in children already at this point and it is hard to undo this message of what a boy is and what a girl is.

Role Models

The value of a male educator within a school is often seen as high. For many parents and practitioners, having a man as the teacher seems to be a sure sign that the boys will have a 'role model' to look up to.  I talk more about the value of role models on my blog (click here) but what I don't discuss there is the value of the emotional man as a role model.

Our society is a gender imbalanced one where men are paid far more than women in the majority of sectors yet women make up the majority of the 'caring workforce:' 

2% of the Early Years workforce is male.

11.5% of NHS nurses are male.

16% of Carers are male. 

18% of Social workers are male.

30% of Counsellors are male.

31% of HR managers are male.

44% of Vets are male.

One could argue that it is important to have male role models to within EY settings to demonstrate the importance of displaying emotions (even the negative ones) so as to help develop emotional literacy. However, what about settings with no male members of staff? 

If you do not have men working within your setting:

* Invite men into your setting who are from these 'caring' workforces to talk about their experiences.

* Invite fathers, uncles and other male relatives in to discuss time when they were happy or sad (such as talking about weddings, adventurous holidays etc.)

* Invite male relatives for stay and play sessions and explain they could play in the home corner, or look after the babies etc.

* Look at pictures of sportsmen/footballers and discuss their outward emotions, how can you tell they are happy or sad?

* Display pictures of men in nurturing work settings such as nurses, vets or chefs/cooks. 

* Display pictures of men taking part in cooking, sewing, baking, looking after children, etc. 

* Use circle time to talk about perceptions and address any sexist views early on by following up with above examples. 

* Discuss any of these perceptions with parents in sensitive ways.

However, I do believe that women can be emotional role models for boys but it is important to be tuned in to any of the opposing messages about masculinity and emotion that they are receiving from external sources (sometimes male members of their family) and to address this as sensitively and as positively as possible. 

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