Hannah Morris explains how children with selective mutism can develop the confidence to express themselves and thrive.
When there is an expectation to talk, the child experiences anxiety and panic that triggers a freeze response. Children with this phobia are able to speak freely to certain people, typically close family and friends, but are consistently silent with others. They may only be able to talk in some environments, such as on the playground but not in the classroom. Some may whisper, use gestures or say yes or no, but more severely affected children will avoid all forms of communication, including writing.
Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children, more commonly girls than boys, and it can persist into adulthood. Sensory sensitivities and post-traumatic stress can lead to selective mutism, though the cause of the anxiety will vary with each child. Children who have recently moved to another country from their birth country are also at increased risk of developing the condition. It is important to check there are no hearing or speech and language needs, as these can make speaking even more stressful.
Selective mutism can affect a child’s ability to function in the classroom and form relationships with their peers. They may be unable to ask questions if they are confused in lessons, which can hinder their progress, and they may find it hard to build friendships if they struggle to communicate, or other children do not understand their needs. Anxiety makes it harder for the brain to process and remember information, so these children may need information repeated and more time to complete tasks. Children with selective mutism may avoid activities that lead them to being asked questions, or speak in front of others. They are also at risk of bullying, as they may struggle to be assertive, or tell an adult if someone is being unkind to them.
To support children with selective mutism effectively, it is essential to understand the condition and recognise the challenges these children face. Individual treatment is available for very complex cases, but it will often not be needed if Early Years or school staff work together with the family to proactively reduce the child’s anxiety and create a positive learning environment. Create a safe and comfortable classroom environment, and welcome the child with a warm smile, ensuring they feel accepted and valued, but without expectation that they respond. Use non-verbal cues, such as smiling and gestures, to communicate your support and encouragement. Watch for signs of discomfort and reassure the child you understand, as well as giving them some space. Visual cues and schedules can provide a sense of structure and predictability, reducing anxiety in the classroom. Do not single the child out or ask them to speak in front of the class. Gradually introduce them to different aspects of the school environment. Allow them to explore the classroom when it is empty and encourage the child to participate in activities that involve minimal speech at first. Give time for them to observe and become familiar with their surroundings. Explore and address any aspects of the classroom environment that overwhelm the child’s senses and cause them stress. Gradual exposure to social situations helps build confidence, so begin with one-on-one interactions and progressively involve the child in group activities.
If a child is able to speak when playing or interacting with certain children, gradually increase your proximity, and then engagement during these times. Play and work alongside the child before trying to interact with them directly. Establish a consistent communication system with the child. This may involve using a non-verbal signal, such as a specific word, symbol or gesture to communicate their needs or thoughts. This may provide a way for them to express themselves without speaking, but bear in mind some children find non-verbal communication equally stressful. Ensure all school staff have an understanding of selective mutism and share two or three key pieces of information about how to interact with the child. Consider using school email systems to communicate with older students. Praise and reward the child for any verbal or non-verbal communication efforts, no matter how small. Encourage (don’t pressure) them to take small steps and celebrate their achievements. Try not to act surprised if they speak, just respond with warmth and acceptance, speaking as you would to any child. Proactively try to build the child’s self-esteem, as increased self-confidence can reduce anxiety. Focus on making learning fun. It is important to remember that the child is struggling with overwhelming anxiety and it can take months or years to overcome selective mutism. Avoid pressuring them to speak and instead offer support, understanding and encouragement. Always provide a safe space where they can feel comfortable. Anxiety is easily transferred, so be mindful to use your own self-calming techniques before interacting with the child. Teach the other students in the class about selective mutism. Place trusted friends in the same class and explore what support the child may need to participate in clubs and trips.
Parents can provide valuable insights into the child’s history and triggers for their anxiety, while specialists, such as Educational Psychologists, can offer guidance on intervention techniques tailored to the child’s individual needs, such as fading, sliding-in and desensitisation. Parents may be able to share aspects of learning that the child did not understand, but were unable to ask questions about in lessons. Consider scheduling weekly meetings with parents or using a home-school communication book to ensure everyone is working together to support the child.
Hannah Morris Educational Psychologist