Do you work in a school? Do you have in your class children that appear very quiet or else unable to talk?
I treat children with Selective Mutism, and they are often thought ofas children that are choosing not to talk, however, they CANNOT talk, which is different as their fear freezes them. They really WANT TO TALK; this is a genuine difficulty and any pressure to speak will make things worse. They are not being defiant, stubborn, or disobedient.
If you work in a school, there are a few things that you can do to support them and especially build a relationship.
Selective Mutism is more than the fear of talking, and steps need to reflect the act of communication not only speaking.
It is also true that each child is different, and there are children who are less scared than others; here is some step by step that you need to consider when you implement communication.
PLEASE DO NOT
- Be hurt or offended when the child remains silent;
- Think that the child is choosing to be this way
- Ask why they are not speaking, neither on a 1:1 or in front of others as they do not know either as this is a response to their fear
- make it your mission to get them to talk;
- Make the child say ‘Hello, please, thank you, etc. They are not being rude;
- Ask direct questions either on a 1:1 or in a group setting
- Expect eye contact as this is anxiety-provoking;
- React when the child finally talks. Although your reaction may be of joy, this only suggests that this is the only thing that you were waiting for.
- Tell the child off in public – have a quiet word in private to set out your expectations.
- Treat the child with kid gloves – they enjoy banter the same as anyone else!;
- Anticipate the child’s every need.
- Object if the child talks to you via their friends
- Be afraid to say ‘Hey, can you keep the noise down!’ as appropriate;
- Make too many changes without warning like school photos or sudden room changes
- Focus on what the child can’t do.
WHAT TO DO
- Learn as much as you can about Selective Mutism
- Build a trusting relationship first
- Look at any form of communication rather than wait for the speech only
- Accept nonverbal communication and build from that, such as pointing, nodding
- Let the child know that you understand that everyone has a fear and you will not try to force talking
- Explore different ways of communication
- nodding his head yes and no
- keeping cards on his desk to answer yes and no
- Make sure that you have time on a 1:1 to comment about the work done
- Comment what you see the student is doing “You are building a high tower; I can see that you are working hard”
- When the student is pointing at something, use the commenting style and say “I can see that you are pointing at the book
- Use forced-choice questions “Would you like the big book or the small book about pandas?”
- If the child says one word, use level praise by saying “Thank you for sharing that with me”
- If the child is pointing then comment again by saying “You are pointing at the small book, great choice, thank you for pointing and sharing that with me”
- Provide the opportunity to speak rather than make demands:
- ‘Hmm, I wonder where this one goes?’ (pause…);
- ‘Oh dear, I can’t find any round ones’ (pause…);
- Warmly respond to the child’s attempts to communicate through gesture or whispering, by talking back in a natural way as if they had spoken
- Ask the child questions via other adults or children they talk to, keeping a comfortable distance until the child can talk easily in front of you
- At registration allow different ways of responding, so everyone can choose so you are not only using something special for the child with Selective Mutism. This can be
- Using a card
- Telling a friend
- Encourage and monitor play as the child will also be scared to initiate play.
- Create a link with home, either via a communication book or via the school system so everyone can monitor the development of communication
- Suggest to the child’s parents to arrange playdates after school with peers so that the child can develop a comfort level with other children.
- Talk to the class when he isn’t there about his “shyness” and how to respond to him: For example:
- Be his friend and include him in all activities.
- Don’t try to make him talk.
- Don’t say to people, “He doesn’t talk.”
- Do not yell out or overly respond if the child should speak. Act as if it were normal and continue with your activity.
- Invite the parents and the child to come in before or after school to help you in the classroom.
- Organize activities where children talk, move or sing in unison, and activities and games which do not require individual speech, and everyone is trying together
- Have the same expectations for good behaviour as for any other child.
I believe that school staff, parents, and professionals should work together.
In my clinical experience when the school can identify a key person supporting the child on a daily basis for 10 minutes, this really helps, because the child is building a trusting relationship, and then communication/speaking activities and games can be built from there.
Speaking in front of a large group is for sure anxiety-provoking and I feel that teachers should not make it their goal to make this child talk in school. This will create frustration for everyone as it is a very high objective, which requires a lot of steps. The anxiety must be lessened slowly, in baby steps beginning individually with the child and one adult and another child.
For more information or videos, please see my youtube channel
Reference and more info on selective mutism
Maggie Johnson and Alison Wingens, The Selective Mutism Manual, second edition (2017)
Gail Kervatt, https://selective-mutism.com/sm-resources/sm-resource-articles/22-school-interventions-and-classroom-strategies-for-teachers-of-selectively-mute-children
M.Ed. www.selective-mutism.com (http://www.selective-mutism.com)