Selective Mutism is a social communication anxiety disorder and needs to be approached from an anxiety perspective. For the student to successfully overcome Selective Mutism, certain characteristics must be present in the classroom and in the teacher for progress of communication and ultimately verbalization within the school setting to occur.
Since the student’s level of anxiety is directly influenced by how comfortable he/she feels in any given situation, it is key for the teacher to help the student build a sense of comfort within the classroom. This can be accomplished in many ways. Some examples are:
- School personnel should be flexible with the parents and allow them to visit the school before or after hours.
Visiting the classroom when few people are around is an excellent way to help the anxious child get to know the classroom in a non-threatening and relaxed manner. Allow for the parents and students to visit the classroom when the teacher is NOT present.
While spending time in the school, with few peers and teachers around, parents should encourage verbalization as much as possible. Walk around the school. Go into the library, art and music room. Ask questions, talk about projects. The point is to allow your child to practice, practice, and practice verbalizing! However, do not make a big deal about speaking. Parents can certainly praise efforts if the child comments about the words coming out, but if the child is not making a big deal over speaking, then mum is the word!
Place no demands on the child. Allow them to explore and enjoy this one-on-one time with mom or dad, and at the same time, get to know the classroom in a relaxed fashion. This tactic may take some time but as time goes on, the child will become more comfortable, and verbalization will most likely occur.
- Allow the student to spend one-on-one time with the teacher, after hours.
The teacher should go about his/her own work and let the student explore the classroom. This helps the child become comfortable being near the teacher, but without feeling as if he/she needs to respond or perform. If the child seems lost and needs some direction, presenting the child with puzzles, coloring materials, and just sitting next to the child is a good place to start. As time goes on, and the child has been back to the classroom a few times, the teacher can sit with, read to, and interact with the child. Complimenting the child’s work and emphasizing his/her positives is important. No expectations whatsoever, should be placed on the child.
- Have the teacher visit the student outside of school.
Some families invite the teacher to their home, enabling the child to benefit from the comfort of being in their own environment. This tactic often benefits both the teacher and the child. The teacher gets to know the child in a non-threatening manner and has the opportunity to interact one-on-one, seeing the student in a more relaxed atmosphere. Children often look forward to seeing the teacher outside of school. If the teacher comes to the home, allow the child to be the ‘big shot’ of their home and ‘show off’ their favorite things. The teacher can read, color, and play games with the child. The goal of this tactic is establishing comfort and rapport, not verbalization.
- Suggest the student help decorate the classroom, set-up the room for the new school year, or help to set up for holidays and special events.
This allows the student to spend extra one-on-one time with the teacher within classroom. This gives the student a sense of belonging, and when they see their contributions in the classroom, it is very satisfying, comforting and an excellent self-esteem booster.
- Bring a buddy (friend) along to the classroom after school or during weekends.
The student with Selective Mutism will often talk and be relaxed with friends in the comfort of their own environment, such as their own home. However, due to enhanced anxiety level within the school environment, the student might not talk to those same children during class or even on the playground. It is recommended that school make accommodations for parents to take their child and a special friend to the classroom before or after school when few people are around. Then two, and eventually three or four children can play and interact in this environment. With only the SM child and his/her friend present, chances are the student will (eventually) speak to his/her friend, and in turn, verbalization may occur during regular school hours.
Q: Should a child be grouped in the same classroom as his/her closest friends?
A: It varies! If the student with Selective Mutism is NOT completely dependent on the other children and is not stifling his/her own social development or the other children’s, then YES, grouping them together is a wonderful way to help the child feel more comfortable! Communication is most likely to occur with those children with whom the SM child is comfortable
The most successful approach to helping the anxious Selectively Mute child is for parents, teacher, treating professional and other relevant professionals to work together as a team. The collaboration of parents and school is critical. Progression from nonverbal to verbal communication is accomplished by basing goals on the child’s comfort level and developing individualized strategies. Learn how we collaborate with schools to help students progress communicatively within the school setting: https://selectivemutismcenter.org/school-based-services/