Selective mutism in children is extremely debilitating as it hinders the child’s ability to form friendships, seek help from peers or teachers, and participate in group activities or classroom discussions. This can quickly spiral into poor academic performance, low self-esteem, social isolation, and even other anxiety disorders and depression. Our main objective as teachers and counselors should be to spot these issues at the earliest so that the child can receive proper care and treatment at an early age. In this article, we will address how you can help students with selective mutism.
What is Selective Mutism in Children?
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder where a child is unable to speak in certain settings or around certain people. In a comfortable social setting – at home with parents, family members, or close friends – children with this condition are able to communicate normally, using both verbal and non-verbal means. However, when these children are put in a social setting that involves strangers or people they are not very close to, they are overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and panic. The distress is so intense that they find themselves frozen and unable to speak.
Signs that a Student May Have Selective Mutism
This condition can easily be confused with autism, learning disabilities, or simply defiant behavior, which is why it is important for us to look for specific behavioral traits. In the school setting, children with selective mutism may:
– Appear self conscious and avoid eye contact
– Not be able to initiate or reciprocate a conversation with other children
– Suddenly get stiff and their facial expressions may freeze when they are expected to talk to unfamiliar people
– Use gestures and facial expressions instead of speaking
– Never speak up in class even if they are addressed directly
If you think that a student of yours might have selective mutism, it would be worthwhile to share your specific observations with their parents. Since children with this condition do not present any deficits in emotional and communicative capacity when they are in a familiar and safe environment, the parents might be shocked upon hearing your observations. This makes it all the more important for you to mention very specific details so the parents could understand that their child might be struggling. If the parents need time to process what you have shared, that is perfectly reasonable. Nonetheless, you should suggest that they visit a psychologist specializing in selective mutism to obtain a proper diagnosis for their child.
An important part of the treatment is helping the child with selective mutism learn how to become proficient at facing the situations that make them feel anxious. While it is never a good idea to push the child to speak, it is entirely possible for you to accommodate their condition in the classroom environment. Let’s explore some more specific ways you can help students with Selective Mutism.
Permit Nonverbal Communication to Help Students with Selective Mutism:
If the student feels comfortable using gestures or hand signs to communicate, you should allow that so the student feels their participation is appreciated and help them build their confidence. You can also try these anxiety alert cards for students who need a little extra assistance.
Assign Small Groups:
Some children feel more at ease when they are doing school activities in a smaller group. Putting them in a small group makes it more likely that they will feel comfortable enough to participate and even communicate with their peers.
Establish One-Sided Spoken Communication:
Children with selective mutism can often benefit from initial one-sided conversation where they are not expected to speak. Instead of asking “how are you doing today?” you could greet them with “It’s very nice to see you.” This relieves the student of the pressure to formulate a response. As they get more comfortable over time, you could introduce a nonverbal greeting like waving or a fist-bump.
Pair a buddy with a Student with Selective Mutism:
If the student has a friend that they are close to or can communicate with verbally, arrange for them to sit together and play together. This could help decrease the tension that the student feels and encourage them to communicate with more peers.
Praise Verbal Communication:
As the student gets more comfortable in the classroom environment, they may start verbalizing their responses. Encourage them by praising their response so that they feel motivated to speak more.
Children with selective mutism deal with agonizing anxiety on a daily basis. Even a tiny bit of encouragement and praise go a long way in helping them build self-esteem. You should strive to create a warm classroom environment so that they feel valued and find it comfortable to express themselves. While these children can make tremendous progress, remember that it will materialize slowly, and will require you to be patient. But seeing them grow and prosper will be an immensely rewarding experience.
Finally, Parents can extend your efforts by creating a calm down corner at home.