Tips for Teachers on Helping the Selective Mute Student

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Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder occurring in childhood that causes children to have the inability to speak in social situations. Children with selective mutism usually speak at home or in other places where they feel comfortable and relaxed. These children are not acting out of stubbornness or defiance; they are reacting to extreme feelings of fear and anxiety. In fact, a large majority of children with selective mutism exhibit the symptoms of social phobia, a DSM-IV diagnosis characterized by a constant fear of social performance. Turning their heads away from people, playing with their hair, sucking their fingers, or picking at sores can indicate social phobia in children.

Since children with selective mutism cannot control their intense anxiety yet, and cannot choose not to attend school, the classroom is often a difficult place for them. Students with this disorder, though, should be included in a general education classroom. If a student continues to have the inability to communicate verbally, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can help implement inclusion.

Strategies for Teachers

Before the first day of school, a teacher should visit the child with selective mutism at home, where she feels most comfortable. Allow her to direct the visit and ask her to show you her room and favorite activities. Make the child feel comfortable and communicate that you will not force her to speak. Getting to know each other may take a few visits. These visits can take place at school, too, before other students come into the classroom.

Below are some other tips on working with a student with selective mutism in your classroom:

  • Sit the child to the side in the classroom, not in the front or center.
  • Have a friend or an outgoing student sit next to the child with selective mutism. Ask the peer’s parents to arrange time outside of school for the two to develop a friendship.
  • Avoid eye contact during the first days of school.
  • Talk to the other students about the child’s condition when she is not in the room. Support the children in befriending and helping her, but ask them not to overreact when she speaks.
  • Encourage the student to use nonverbal communication by nodding, pointing, or using cards. Let her know that she can speak to you, but do not force the child to speak.
  • Offer praise and reward the child for speaking and for participating in class. Praise and rewards will make her feel part of the class, more independent, and lessen her anxiety.
  • Keep a regular class schedule and clearly explain classroom activities. If a change in schedule occurs, try to talk to the child about it to reduce anxiety and fear of the unknown.
  • Work with the inclusion specialist, speech-language pathologist, and school psychologist to make modifications and accommodations to activities and assignments.
  • Seek other ways to assess reading development and other skills. Ask the student’s parents to videotape her reading aloud at home.
  • Plan small group activities. Avoid moving the child from group to group.

Try to be as patient and understanding as possible with the student. Focus on lessening the fear and anxiety the child feels, not on the speech she may not produce. You may be surprised with words you end up hearing.