Selective Mute: A teacher's guide

Allaa Gawish

How can teachers provide better learning experiences for children who are selective mute?

What is Selective Mute?

When a child acts in a certain way, there is usually an underlying reason corresponding to the acting behaviour. Selective mutism can be spotted by noting the child's behaviour during social settings. In this article we will be discovering more about selective mutism and how can we help the child.

Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder that affects the child's skills in speaking and communicating in social situations. Within a school setting, they may have complications in interacting with their peers or explaining a new idea. Children with selective mutism are capable of speaking and communicating normally except maybe if they are in an unfamiliar situation or with unfamiliar people.

It usually starts in the childhood stage and if left untreated, it may be carried on until adulthood. 

Studies have shown that about 90% of children with selective mutism have a social phobia or social anxiety. Children with selective mutism do not refuse to speak but they unexpectedly freeze responses when they face unfamiliar social situations, but if there are familiar people surrounding them, they are able to speak spontaneously without any feeling of panic. 

Each child experiences social anxiety in distinctive ways. Some pupils might be completely silent when they're out among people; some might say fewer than ten words at any one time; and others might not even talk at all. Bilingual children with selective mutism may have a silent period when they are required to speak or practice a new language.

What are the signs of selective Mutism?

Selective mutism usually appears in early childhood between ages 2 and 4. The red light appears in the child's ability during interacting with unfamiliar people.

Some common symptoms are: 

  • Feeling nervous, anxious, and embarrassed in a social environment. 
  • Fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, lack of movements, and blank expression during unfamiliar real-life settings.
  • Lack of speech in school settings and real-life settings.
  • Speaking fluently and confidently in familiar social environments (e.g.; with familiar people) but not with others.
  • Using nonverbal communication instead of verbal communication to ask for their necessities (e.g: pointing). Using gestures and facial expressions but some children may struggle also in using nonverbal communication.
  • Feeling shy but they are able to learn everyday life skills and appear ordinary in different real-life settings.

In addition to these primary symptoms, here are other characteristics of children with selective mutism:

  • The symptoms appear at least for one month, but in the first month of school, they may be naturally shy (2 months in new settings), if after one month the child still feels shy it must be taken into consideration.
  • The child should be able to speak and understand the normally spoken language in some social situation
  • Lack of speech must be appearing during interacting in school environments and social settings 

Selective Mute Facts
Selective Mute Facts

What causes selective mutism?

Selective mutism is a feeling of fear and embarrassment in social settings that is uncomfortable for the child. Previous studies have also linked causes such as child abuse, trauma, or upheaval. The current thinking about the onset of symptoms is moving toward the idea that selective mutism is mainly a social anxiety disorder.  Some of the childhood conditions might include: 

  • The child is feeling very shy and having fear of being embarrassed in front of people.
  • If the child has depressive symptoms.
  • Children with a sensory processing disorder, if the child is sensitive to sounds (e.g: loud noises), smell, touch, lights, and tastes. Having difficulty in dealing with sensory inputs in the environment, possibly leads to negative behaviour, mute behaviour, anxiety, and frustration.
  • If the child has developmental disorders, learning disabilities, such as auditory processing disorder, autism spectrum disorder, where the child starts to feel insecure, more anxious, and not confident in front of people. In addition to that, some characteristics of these disorders are related to communications skills but be aware of the different symptoms as example autistic children will generally have difficulties in communicating in all of the social setting situations.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): the feeling of unpleasant thoughts, images that lead to anxiety and frustration can result in mute behaviour.
  • Panic disorder: an anxiety disorder, an unexpected feeling of fear and panic attack. 
  • If the child suffers from a communication disorder or speech/ language development delay.

Finally, Selective mutism is a condition like hundreds of mental disorders, and there are no clear reasons for mutism.

Understanding Selective Mutism
Understanding Selective Mutism

How can being selective mute effect a child's education?

There is a misconception between those children in school who are misbehaving and children who are struggling because of their ability. Children with selective mutism may be facing obstacles in their learning environment. 

Children who suffer from Selective Mutism may not be able to thrive in the current classroom environment; they might struggle to ask for help or participate in class activities and playtime. The child might even be too stressed to ask for clarification if they do not comprehend the task. 

They may have accidents in school because they are not able to ask for help, for example, some children may be avoiding eating and drinking in school, so they will not ask to go to the toilet. Also, they may feel unwell but are too timid to ask to go to the doctor. Also, it can affect their ability to make friends as they feel anxious to communicate with people and try to avoid eye contact. 

They can also struggle to laugh and smile which gives an impression that they are not friendly. Although they are willing to have friends, they might be struggling with social interactions. 

Providing multi-sensory approaches to learning
Providing multi-sensory approaches to learning

What can teachers and parents do for a selectively mute child?

  • Provide warm-up time: a child with selective mutism can speak freely in their comfortable environment. Teachers may ask the pupil to arrive 10-15 minutes before the other kids and spend time with the child in the classroom with their parents and speak about the day, to reduce the stress level. Use ice-breaking techniques by telling the child 'Good morning, nice to see you today, how was your day going yesterday?' Support the child to calm down. Even with family events request from them to give the child time to warm up.
  • Allowing using nonverbal communication: forcing the child to use verbal communication will lead that the child to avoid participating within the environment. Allow the child to use thumbs up, pointing, and other nonverbal communication needed. It is vital to decrease the stressing and anxiety level that the child may feel. 
  • Give the child time to respond: give the child enough time to respond to questions or even to speak and tell events. Make sure that no one interprets the child or speaking instead of him/her.
  • Use labelled praise: instead of saying ' Great job' say ' Great job that you asked for toilet' but avoid praising the child in public, so it would not be embarrassing for the child.
  • Rephrase questions: try to avoid questions that the child can answer using yes or no and move their head, try asking questions like ' Do you like to drink orange juice or apple juice? Do you prefer to use blue color or green color?' 
  • Practice echoing: repeat the child phrase, that will let the child feel secure that he has been heard and understood.
  • Pairing with a buddy: if the child has a friend that he/she feels comfortable with him/ her, allow the child to work with and pair them together 
  • Small group work: allow the child to work with a small group of people, that will help them to speak more freely. 
  • Building on strengths and areas of interest: the majority of children are getting excited with activities and resources that they are interested in. Usually, choose the activities that grasp the child's interest and let the child feel confident to work with them. 
  • Use videos: if the child feels unconfident with speaking in front of others, allow the child to record video and speak about the required topic, e.g: to speak about what they did on the weekend. Watch videos together then discuss and talk about it
  • Discuss selective mutism in the classroom: generally talking and discussing disorders with your class will result that instead of pupils neglecting the pupil or having misconceptions about the pupil, the children will start to understand that pupil and how to deal with him/her, by accepting and respecting difference. Nevertheless, make sure that you are avoiding labelling the child.
  • Outside support: some children may need to be provided with outside agency support for example offering them cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) which helps the person to focus on how they think 

Provide visual access to the curriculum
Provide visual access to the curriculum

Final thoughts on supporting Selective Mute children

It is vital that teachers, parents, family, and other participants are informed of the child's situation, as it is crucial that all of the participants are working on the same track. 

Additionally, avoid pressuring the child, it is important to accept the child and provide the child with suitable support and provide treatment if needed. Selective mutism is a feeling of fear and anxiety, putting pressure on the child to speak and interact in social settings will lead to increased negative feelings. The child needs to feel relaxed and calm to be able to show progress.

Concluding, be encouraging and enthusiastic with the child. Selective mutism is not a defiant or oppositional behaviour even though the child may be refusing to answer questions. They might be sensitive and feel anxious in social situations. If the child does not show progress, parents and teachers might need to utilise the professional services of an educational psychologist.