What is Selective Mutism in a Child?
Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder which is characterised by difficulty or inability to speak in particular social situations, including school, preschool, work or other community places. Children with selective mutism generally speak clearly and without difficulty when they are relaxed and feel comfortable, such as at home with their caregivers.
When Does Selective Mutism Start in Children?
Selective Mutism often starts in early childhood, between the ages of 2-4 years. One of the first ways that selective mutism can be observed is when children begin to interact with people outside of the immediate family, such as attending Daycare, Preschool or Nursery.
What Causes Selective Mutism in a Child?
Selective Mutism is classified as an anxiety disorder. More than 90% of children with selective mutism also present with social phobia or social anxiety. Whilst the causes of Selective Mutism continue to be researched, the following origins have been identified:
- An underlying anxiety disorder or Psychological issue
- A traumatic experience, e.g. bullying
- Difficulties with speech or language, such as stuttering
- A family history of Selective Mutism
- Developmental or cognitive delays
- An underlying sensory processing disorder, which can make it difficult for the child to process some sensory stimuli
What Does Selective Mutism Look Like in Children?
Selective mutism in children can present in several different ways, including the following examples:
- Difficulty speaking in certain social situations or environments or to particular people, e.g. school, church, at the shopping centre, at the park
- Difficulty communicating nonverbally, e.g. nodding/shaking head, pointing
- A ‘frozen’ or ‘blank’ facial expression when in a challenging social situation
- Looking uncomfortable or embarrassed, such as trembling or blushing (pink cheeks)
- Excessive ‘shyness’
- Appear stiff, tense or awkwardly coordinated
What Does Selective Mutism Look Like in the Classroom?
Selective Mutism can present in several different ways in the school setting and kids can often act very differently at school compared to the home environment. Your student’s parents may comment that they child speaks freely and with animation at home, where they feel comfortable, however in your classroom, you may observe your student to:
- Communicate only via non-verbal means, such as nodding/shaking their heads, pointing to items or using facial expressions
- Have difficulty participating in classroom discussions
- Appear to ‘freeze’ when they are called upon in class or spoken to directly
- Present with a ‘blank’ facial expression
Communicate freely with chosen friends but not teachers or other peers
What Professionals Should be Involved with Selective Mutism?
To support our students with Selective Mutism in the classroom, it is vital that we gather the right team of professionals to work together.
- Psychologist: Firstly, working with a Psychologist is highly important. A psychologist can work with the child to address the fears and anxiety that is causing the selective mutism. They can also explore any underlying causes or contributing factors.
- Speech Pathologist: Engaging with speech pathology services is an integral part of the team to support the student with selective mutism. Because children with selective mutism often have underlying speech or language disorders, one of the first steps should include obtaining an updated speech pathology assessment. This is helpful for determining if there are any underlying language difficulties and provides a current baseline of the child’s language skills.
The speech pathologist can assess the child’s understanding of language (receptive language) and use different techniques to assess expressive language (language use) such as providing options for the student to write down their answers or whisper the answers to a ‘safe’ adult, such as their caregivers. Speech Pathologists can also examine a child’s skills and check for any structural difficulties in the child’s mouth.
Speech Pathologists can provide valuable, ongoing therapy for students with selective mutism in the following ways:
- Providing means for the child to communicate in any setting, either verbally or non-verbally, such as through using a communication device or visual supports
- Collaborating with the student’s Educators about how to provide ongoing support in the classroom
- ‘Shaping’ techniques – this technique involves praising any communication type, such as nodding the head, whispering or speaking audibly.
- ‘Sliding In’ techniques – this technique involves gradually altering the environment to build a child’s confidence to communicate. For example, if a student communicates verbally to their caregivers at home, they may practice communicating verbally to the same person in the classroom at school, without the rest of the class present.
5 Ways Teachers Can Help Their Students with Selective Mutism
- Accept and support all nonverbal and verbal communication:
It is so important to help your student with Selective Mutism to feel comfortable and relaxed when communicating. This means going at their pace.
- Replace direct questioning with comments:
Students with selective mutism can often feel anxious and pressured if they are asked a direct question, as it puts them on a spot and requires them to answer immediately. Replace direct questions with a similar comment to help your students feel at ease. For example, rather than saying ‘Hi Ella, how are you today?’, you can say ‘Hi Ella, I’m so happy to see you today’.
- Set Up a Lunchtime ‘Games Club’
Students with selective mutism can find it very challenging to approach other peers to join in play or to form meaningful friendships. In particular, students with selective mutism can find the playground environment very overwhelming due to the larger size, noise level and number of students.
To facilitate play opportunities in a calmer, quieter environment, if your school has capacity, you could set up a ‘Games Club’ or similar lunchtime/break time group. Set this up in your classroom and provide games/activities that you know your student will enjoy. Let them know that they can bring a peer with them. You can ‘cap’ the Games Club at 20 students per day to ensure the space does not become too loud or too busy.
- Discuss Selective Mutism with your Class
With the student’s caregiver’s permission, take some time to discuss the topic of selective mutism with your whole class. To reduce anxiety, you may decide to pick a time when the student with Selective Mutism is not in the classroom. Discuss with your class the ways that the students can be supportive and helpful.
Students will often notice that the child with selective mutism does not speak and may comment ‘Ella doesn’t talk’ or ‘Ella can’t talk’. We can gently reshape this language by saying ‘Ella can talk and communicate in lots of different ways. We are helping her use her brave talking muscles at school’.
- Remain neutral when the student uses verbal communication:
Although we would be so thrilled if the student with selective mutism speaks to us, it is important to remain neutral. Whilst we want to praise the child for using their bravery and speaking, drawing attention to it, e.g. ‘Great talking!’ can actually increase the student’s anxiety. Aim to remain neutral and respond in the same way regardless of how the child communicates with you (you can celebrate with your colleagues after school!)
Collaborate with your student’s speech pathologist to ensure that you are on the same page with the language you are using – consistency is key!
Selective Mutism can be a challenging issue to navigate in your classroom. But remember, as teachers, you have the wonderful superpower of being able to create a safe, nurturing space for your students, helping them to feel safe and secure.