Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder in which children cannot speak to certain people or in specific places. Usually, children are most comfortable speaking at home to their nuclear family and find it hardest to speak in school or kindergarten. Each child has his unique pattern of with whom he speaks and where; for example, some children will speak only to children and not to staff, others may find it easier to speak to adults than to children, and some may not utter a word to anyone at all in school.
In severe cases, children may refrain from participating in school activities even when no speech is required; these children may have frozen expressions; barely smile, nod, or use gestures; and be close to invisible in school. Others may participate in all activities and be outgoing and social to the degree that it is hard to notice that they do not speak.
The good news is that selective mutism usually responds well to treatment, and most children with SM will take a normal developmental track after the SM is overcome. On the other hand, children with SM suffer, as they cannot express who they truly are in school, must invest great energy in refraining from speaking, and miss out both on social and academic experience. Early intervention to circumvent both the suffering and the missed opportunities is strongly advised.
It should be noted that SM has no bearing on intelligence and social skills: most children with SM are intelligent and socially able, and for most of them, a regular school framework is appropriate, albeit with the help required to overcome their SM.
How Can I Help?
You, as a teacher, are in the eye of the storm, placed where the selective mutism is occurring, and you can do so much to help the child. Here are a few guidelines on how to help—both what you can do and what you should try to avoid doing.
Do establish a warm, supportive, communicative relationship with the child. It is possible to communicate with every child, using whatever tools she currently has in her communication repertoire: these may be gestures, nodding, smiling, pointing, and so on. In this way you can show the child that communicating with a teacher is pleasant and beneficial and that you see her and care about her. If you can, set aside a couple of minutes a few times a week to meet with her; in this time you can find out more about her, her likes and dislikes and hobbies, and see if you can help her in school. For example, you might ask if she would prefer to be sitting next to someone she likes or participate in a specific activity.
Do not ignore the child. Children with SM can become almost invisible in class; show him he is important to you. Try to see other strengths of the child, and show him you appreciate them—for example, music, drawing, kindness to others, sports, and the like. Children with SM sometimes become seen by staff as solely owning one trait: the failure to speak. Every child has a broad constellation of abilities and traits.
Do not try to force him to talk when it is clear he is currently unable to do so. Most children with SM are repeatedly put in the position in which they are required to give a verbal response, but they fail to do so, and thus they experience failure numerous times a day.
Do engage the child and milk to the hilt any communicative abilities the child currently has with you—gestures, pointing, whispering, and so on.
Do try to gradually broaden the child’s communication with you. Perhaps after a couple of weeks of building a communicative relationship a few times a week, you could ask the child to whisper something to you or to send you an audio WhatsApp in answer to a question you might pose. Using recordings in a sensitive, structured way is often a manner of bringing the child’s voice into the class.
Do remember that overcoming SM occurs usually as a gradual process, with small steps toward speech. It is tempting to think that after a small improvement—for example, that the child whispers to you—she will be able to speak freely very soon. In practice, SM is usually overcome with small, gradual steps.
Do not punish the child for not speaking—it is like punishing a person with broken legs for not jumping. She cannot do it at this point. Accept her, and appreciate her as she is, all the while looking for ways to increase the quality and quantity of her communication. SM is rarely oppositional behavior; it is usually the child’s response to anxiety.
Do consider what could help her to feel socially more at ease: where to seat her, in which groups she might participate, and how to best highlight her abilities in these settings.
Do not make a huge commotion when you first hear him talk: children with SM are usually shy and dread being in the spotlight. Understated praise usually works best with these children.
Do not enable the child to gradually increase his refraining from engaging in school activities. Be sure that you don’t become lax on demands that he is able to meet, such as schoolwork, participation in activities that do not require speech, and social activities.
Do be in touch with his family and think together with them how to help him. Have them show you videos of the child at home in his element so that you know who he really is when not in the grip of SM.
Do consider how the child could get behavioral or cognitive behavioral therapy for SM within the school framework. If you think you may be able to carry out a stepladder exposure intervention, you could read this book to see what it involves.
Do consider, together with her parents, other issues that may be bothering the child and contributing to the maintenance of the SM. For example, many children with SM have language difficulties, and if this is the case, appropriate help outside school may make the SM easier to overcome.
Remember, you can be instrumental in helping your student overcome his SM and making his life so much better!