Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder where children are unable to speak in social situations. These children can speak at home and in situations where they feel relaxed. When placed in a social situation, such as school, children with selective mutism find it impossible to speak out loud. The following are ways teachers can help.
Meet with the child and parent before school starts, if possible. This is a good time for the child to become familiar with the classroom and you. Don’t expect the student to talk, this gives you a chance to meet the both the child and parent in a low pressure situation.
Look for information on selective mutism****. You might start by asking the parent for information and resources to help you learn more about this condition. The book, The Silence Within, by Gail Kervatt, is a practical and informative book for working with children with selective mutism.
Treat it as an anxiety disorder, not defiance. When a child refuses to speak or answer your questions, you might see it as defiance. But children with selective mutism have an anxiety disorder. They are so filled with fear that they are unable to speak.
Ask the student if he or she would like to come in to the classroom early to help you get ready for the day. This gives you one-on-one time with the student, even if he or she isn’t ready to talk, it allows you to start to develop a relationship.
Let the child know that you are not going to force her to speak but that you are there to help. Trying to force the child to speak or punishing the child for not speaking only adds to the anxiety levels, making the child even more uncomfortable.
Create alternate ways of communicating. Some teachers find it helpful to provide the student with communication cards. These can help with basic communication, for example, cards for yes and no. Another card can be a bathroom pass that the student needs to hand you before leaving the room.
Pay attention to whether the student feels comfortable with any other students. You might see her whispering to another student during recess or gravitating to someone. Try to seat the other student close by and alert the parent so they can arrange time outside school for the children to get together.
Talk to the class, when the student is not present, about “shyness” and give them ways to help, such as including him or her in activities, accepting alternate ways of communication and not pushing the person to talk or making fun of him or her for not talking.
Consider requesting to visit the child in his or her home. This gives the child a chance to interact with you in a safe environment. Don’t expect the child to talk, but ask about toys, books, etc and give the child a chance to interact with you.
For more information on anxiety in school:
“Tips for Helping Kids with Selective Mutism Go Back to School,” 2014, Aug 26, Staff writer, Child Mind Institute: https://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2014-8-26-tips-helping-kids-sm-go-back-school
“20 Tips for Parents of Children with Selective Mutism,” 2013, Compiled by Evelyn R. Klein and Lisa Kovac, Selective Mutism Group: https://www.selectivemutism.org/resources/new-member-packet/20_Tips_for_Parents_of_Children_with_Selective_Mutism.pdf
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.