What Lecturers Have to Know About Selective Mutism
Shy students are common in the classroom and most teachers are very good at pulling them out. Sometimes it’s not just about shyness, though. Selective mutism (sometimes called situational mutism) is a more complex issue and one that any teacher may one day face.
A few years ago a teacher shared her experience in the Facebook group WeAreTeachers HELPLINE. “I have a little girl who has spoken maybe four words all last year in kindergarten and now that she is in first grade she doesn’t speak yet,” said this teacher. “She talks to her friends. She talks to her family. Once she almost accidentally talked to me. Does anyone have experience with it?”
Fortunately, some others had experience of this type of thing and felt it sounded like a classic case of selective mutism. Here’s What Teachers Need to Know About This Anxiety Disorder.
What is selective mutism?
First, here’s what it isn’t. Selective mutism is not willful disobedience – the child does not choose this behavior. It’s not just a bit of shyness that subsides as the student feels more comfortable in a week or two. It’s not a kid who just likes peace and quiet or is even an introvert. (For more myths about selective mutism, see here.)
Selective Mutism Facts: Thriving Minds
So what is it The Mayo Clinic website defines selective mutism (SM) as an anxiety disorder characterized by “a persistent failure of children to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when they are able to speak in other situations, such as at home with close family members . ”
Generally, this behavior must be monitored consistently for at least a month before a diagnosis can be made. (This month does not include the first month of school, which is a stressful time for every child.) Selective mutism is believed to occur in about 1% of children, is more common in girls than boys, and is often diagnosed when children start school. Learn more about the SMart Center here.
But they’ll talk when they really need it, right?
Raise our voice | iSpeak
Probably not. Think of selective mutism more like a switch being thrown in certain situations. At home or with friends, this child is usually talkative and often sociable (this is an important distinction between selective mutism and autism).
But in an unfamiliar social situation, with new faces and new expectations, the switch is thrown and speaking falls silent. (This is why it is sometimes referred to as “situational mutism”.) The child cannot control this behavior; in fact, they often desperately want to speak but feel unable to do so. For example, it’s not uncommon for a young child with SM to piss themselves instead of going to the bathroom.
This anxiety disorder doesn’t just affect young children. Read here a high school student’s lively account of daily life with SM.
Of course, this has a huge impact on a child’s academic performance. Teachers suspecting selective mutism should speak to the student’s parents and previous teachers immediately and schedule an appointment with a school counselor. Students diagnosed with SM can qualify for an IEP / 504 plan and will require certain accommodations to help them succeed.
Which strategies and adjustments work?
Source for banter
Selective mutism is a complex disease and no treatment will be effective for every affected child. It is therefore important to consult an expert whenever possible. The recommendations listed here are not intended to replace expert advice, but can provide some possible suggestions to help teachers deal with this issue in the classroom. (If you are helping with an IEP / 504 plan, click here for a detailed listing of the Selective Mutism Organization.)
Provide warm-up time.
Children with SM often chat comfortably with adults and children they already know, but new surroundings and unfamiliar faces stimulate their silence. Allow the student to arrive earlier, say 30 minutes before the other children, and spend some time in the classroom with their parents. Little by little, the teacher can dive into this warm-up time and become a familiar and calming face.
Try nonverbal strategies.
Do not allow SM for a child to participate and learn. Allow them to use thumbs up / down, pointing, nodding, and other nonverbal communication skills as needed. With older students who can write, some teachers are successful with whiteboards where the student writes their question or answer instead of saying it out loud.
Use the buddy system.
Some children with SM can use a friend to help them communicate. Again, this is not the ultimate solution, but it will help you stay engaged. Allow them to sit close together and speak softly from time to time. This can increase the comfort level for the child with selective mutism. Some teachers also find that children with selective mutism do well in small groups with other students they already know. Teachers can discreetly observe the small group work to get a better idea of what the student is aware of.
A therapist or intervention specialist the child knows and feels comfortable with can be a valuable addition to the classroom from time to time. They can help the child keep practicing behaviors that they worked on in therapy and also give you, as a teacher, better coping skills.
Use alternative assessment methods.
“But how do I know if a child can read when I can’t hear them?” You might ask yourself. This is the kind of situation that you might need to get creative with. For example, ask a parent to videotape the child reading to them at home.
What does not work?
Many well-meaning adults think that they can simply force or shame a child with selective mutism to speak, or assume that they “will speak when they are ready”. Both strategies can actually be harmful. Here are a few behaviors teachers should avoid.
DO NOT exclude them from classroom activities.
The student should participate in all classroom activities, including those that require discussion. Find non-verbal strategies to take into account when needed.
Do not draw attention to them whether they speak or not.
Students with SM want to feel “normal” and are more likely to speak when they feel completely comfortable. Calling attention to their inability to speak, or even acknowledging them publicly when they speak, can cause serious discomfort. Avoid saying things like, “I just want to hear your voice!” Or “I know you will trust me if you choose to speak to me.”
Don’t assume that they will say something when they “really” need something.
You can’t make someone with S&M talk by ignoring them or thinking that they will find a way to tell you if it is “really important.” Actively look for ways to communicate with the child about important things, such as bathroom breaks, feeling sick, or not understanding the lesson.
Selective Mutism Resources
The information provided here is just a very brief overview of a complicated anxiety disorder. Teachers who encounter selective mutism in their classes should spend some time exploring more detailed resources. Here are a few to get you started.
(WeAreTeachers can collect a share of the sales through these links.)
Try these selections to further explore how you can help students with selective mutism.
Share these books with other students to help them understand SM.