Printout for teachers/professionals working with a child with Selective Mutism

Top tips for teachers/professionals when dealing with the child’s mutism this Selective Mutism Awareness Month-


1. Speak to the child in an ‘offhand’ sort of way. However ill-mannered it may sound by not directly addressing the child, talk to them without completely acknowledging them. Direct confrontation, on the flip side of the coin, will  induce more anxiety in them, and sensing that you’re not so ‘in their face’, they will feel more comfortably relaxed and capable of following what you’re saying.Don’t, of course, get into the habit of ignoring them completely since feelings of loneliness could begin to manifest.
2. No direct questions. This is rather an important one. There is nothing worse than asking the child a direct question whilst they are sitting there riddled with anxiety worrying about when they are going to be put in the spotlight again next. The only thing frequenting their mind is when you’re going to go away. This will induce more anxiety and fear, negatively reinforcing a lack of response.Instead of saying, ‘Have you done your homework Tobias?’ say ‘I wonder whether Tobias has done his homework?’ with no eye contact. This way, there is no pressure and less anxiety for ‘Tobias’ to speak, and sensing this, maybe some sort of response (verbal or non-verbal) might follow.

3. Minimal direct eye contact. Concurring with the previous tips, Selectively Mute children do feel threatened by direct eye-contact. When suffering as a child, I genuinely found I had a very difficult time even thinking about speaking to a teacher who’s eyes always locked onto mine, and compared to others who took a more vacant view in this regard, I felt no pressure, and could even at times manage a few words.

4. Ask the child less ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions. Try not to make the mistake of falling into the habit of asking the child too many yes or no questions. These, of course for the child require a nod or shake of the head and within time, this is going to become an established response and they are going to become too familiar answering non-verbally.

5. Have regular chats with the child’s parent’s/carer’s. A child overcoming Selective Mutism needs a network of teachers, doctors, family etc all working together to help understand the main triggers of and ease the child’s anxiety. Make sure the child is happy at school and has no fears or worries. It is very easy for a Selectively Mute child to very quickly feel isolated, and even possibly ‘unworthy’ especially when compared to their class peers given their mutism. Just make sure that they are not left out in other respects.
6. Give the child more one to one attention when you can. In the same way as the former tip, the child can very quickly become more and more isolated owing to their stubborn and oppositional-like tendencies isolating themselves even to the closest people to them (particularly teenage sufferers). Often, most of the focus in the classroom is directed more at the talkative, naughty children so that the child with SM feels even more isolated. Make sure (better still in a slight offhand sort of way) that you do acknowledge them, help them with their work and let them feel they matter equally.
7. Watch out for teasing/ bullying. Keep an extra eye out, checking the child (without their knowledge) in the playground or cafeteria etc. So much teasing and bullying goes on these days, and especially at a young age, it can rip their souls apart being bullied and feeling so helpless to do anything about it. If they appear to often be alone, why not take the initiative to ask another couple of timid students in the class to allow them to tag along with them. It would increase the chance of verbalisation with the others too. Somebody has to take the responsibility to help the child, ask yourself where the child is going to end up if everybody keeps on passing the buck with the child’s responsibilities.
8. Make special arrangements for the child. I don’t know how often (if) they hold school assemblies these days, but when I was very young, I used to make sure I deliberately missed a few days of school each term to ensure that I would not be called up in assembly in front of the school year at the end of every term to collect a certificate for full attendance. There was nothing I feared more than going up on that stage. If you sense that the child cannot handle a particular situation (school trip, sports day, presentation) facilitate it to their needs. Trust must be built with them, and it is important that they can trust you so that they can work with you.
9. The main approach should be focusing on ways to reduce the anxiety. Do everything you can to reduce the child’s anxiety. This is a social anxiety disorder, and they cannot speak fundamentally because they feel such real, intense, gripping anxiety when they are expected to speak. Do not make them do anything you sense that makes them feel uncomfortable. Sit them at a table with the more timid children perhaps. Do anything which you feel will reduce their anxiety.
10. SM children do not speak when they feel the ‘expectation’ to do so. So what do we do? Make sure they perceive that YOU DO NOT EXPECT THEM TO SPEAK! That is the advice in a nutshell. Lay off the child, take a more relaxed approach and just do not demand or even expect anything. This moulds together with every previous tip having been said. Leave them to their own devices and let them shine when they are ready to.
 Jess Thorpe at SupportSelectiveMutism.

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