A while back, I attended a one-day workshop on selective mutism. This doesn’t make me an expert – nowhere close. So please, don’t take my reflections as advice – consult with parents, special education staff, speech-language pathologists, mental health professionals, etc., if this is a challenge you’re currently trying to tackle. That said – I did want to write this post as a way to remind myself of some key messages that I learned.
Family Involvement is Key
Typically, a child who experiences selective mutism at school can speak completely comfortably at home. They may or may not also experience difficulty speaking when out with family in the community. School may be the first location where difficulty appears. Conversation early and often with families will be imperative. It’s not something schools can address on their own.
Selective Mutism is Connected to Anxiety
Students with selective mutism may love their teachers and classmates, may really want to speak – but may just not be able to. They’re not being defiant. They’re not “just shy”. The “selective” piece isn’t a willful choice. At its root, selective mutism is connected to anxiety. That’s why addressing it will often involve therapy and sometimes also medication. This piece will usually need to be addressed by the family, in consultation with their family doctor and other specialists they may be referred to.
A Passive Approach Isn’t Helpful
Doing nothing and assuming a child will “grow out of it” or just naturally get comfortable without intervention is not a good approach. The earlier the intervention, the easier it can be. Sometimes, if a child is left unsupported, their lack of speaking begins to be reinforced and it becomes even harder (but not impossible) to treat. Children can learn to be comfortable speaking at school, given the right tools and supports from a collaborative parent/school/professional team.
Climbing the Ladder
While therapy and medication will work on strategies for coping with the anxiety, in parallel, schools and families can also work together to begin expanding the people, environments and activities where the student feels comfortable speaking.
Knowing the people, locations and activities where the child is already comfortable speaking is necessary information in order to begin thinking about building a plan for school. Once you know that, you can begin building a “ladder”.
What is a ladder, in this case?
Imagine the bottom is where you’re at now (e.g., student feels comfortable talking with mom, at home, doing any activity but especially loves board games) and the top is where you want to get to (e.g., student feels comfortable sharing ideas out loud in a group situation in class).
How do you climb a ladder? You certainly can’t jump from the bottom to the top. You have to take it one rung at a time.
You only want to change one of the three variables (people, environment, activity) at a time. Work from the most comfortable possibility to the least. Then go up one baby step rung and then stay there until that becomes the new comfortable.
As a simplified example, if a student feels comfortable at home, with mom, playing a board game, then maybe the first step will be that the child plays a board game, with mom, in a small private seminar room at school – maybe even after school when no one else is around, at first.
Once that’s comfortable, maybe student and mom then start to play the board game in different location at school, maybe in a quiet secluded corner of the library, out of sight of others (but where you can hear that others are present elsewhere in the library).
Then maybe you stay there for a while, but maybe try inviting the student’s most trusted friend to play the board game with them and mom.
And slowly, over many, many, many exposures over many, many, many different days – you keep “climbing the ladder”. Ideally, practice happens frequently and regularly to help keep momentum moving forward.
Maybe eventually, you end up where mom no longer needs to be there and the student and trusted friend are now playing the board game in the classroom. Maybe more friends or the teacher join in.
And maybe sometimes you even have to take a step back down the ladder to gain your footing again and then try again, with a smaller step.
But eventually, the goal is to get closer and closer to that desired outcome without having it feel so overwhelming. If everything is a baby step and there’s ample opportunity to get comfortable before moving on, the anxiety will begin to feel more manageable (in combination with strategies learned through therapy).
In The Meantime
As you can imagine, this process does not happen overnight. In the meantime, teachers and schools need to be flexible in their academic demands on these students.
We want to accommodate – with the thinking that these accommodations are temporary, will not always be needed and may frequently need to change. Once they’re no longer needed, take them away. It’s a balance – we don’t want to enable the selective mutism but at the same time cannot push too soon or too far. But once we know a child can do something, then do expect them to keep doing it.
Here are some examples of possible accommodations:
- Remove the expectation to speak.
- Some students may be comfortable participating in class using nonverbal communication (e.g., nodding, pointing).
- Provide a nonverbal way to ask for needs (e.g., cards on a keyring to indicate bathroom, get a drink, go to locker, etc.).
- Once a student does begin to speak in class, try closed-ended questions at first, where the possible answers are phrased in the question itself. (e.g., Would you like a pencil or a marker?)
- Don’t speak “for” the student or try to mind read.
- Preferential seating – to sit wherever in the room is the most comfortable for them and beside their most trusted peer. They may begin to whisper with this peer long before they’re comfortable enough to speak to everyone else.
There are many ways to demonstrate learning, so allow the student to use their strengths and stick to something comfortable.
What Did I Miss?
If you stumble across this post and have something to add, please do!