Selective Mutism and School

Claire Walley
January 16, 2024

Selective Mutism is a form of anxiety disorder which means that children (and adults) struggle to speak in certain situations. They may speak freely in situations where they feel comfortable. With children, it is often something we see in schools. Children are chatty and confident when at home with loved ones but will not speak in school. Selective Mutism does not refer to a child being shy, reluctant to answer a question in front of a class say. It means the child, in most cases, will not speak at all in an anxiety provoking environment. The environment itself does not have to be stressful or loud, it could be a calm quiet school library for example and still the child will not speak.

There is no clear cause of Selective Mutism. Research has suggested a range of factors that could have a causal effect – however there are no clear-cut conclusions. It has been suggested causes could range from self-esteem issues, issues with sound processing, speech and language problems, a trauma, or a family history of anxiety disorders. Selective Mutism can be particularly hard for children, families, and schools to understand as the child’s presentation is so different in different settings. It can be upsetting for parents to think of their child not being able to speak in school. And there is a wider issue when it comes to safeguarding. If a child is unable to express their needs or concerns it is likely that things can go amiss such as illnesses, bullying or health and safety concerns.

Turning to the positive now, there are things we can put in place at home or at school that can support a child with Selective Mutism to feel confident enough to speak once more. The turnaround, in some cases, is dramatic. The SEN Expert looks back fondly on a student we were working with whilst teaching in Somerset. Fifteen-year-old *Jack had severe Selective Mutism and deep anxiety around school. He had been a school refuser for some months and would only ‘attend’ school if he could sit in the carpark in his mother’s car. So, the car became our classroom! We use a range of strategies to support Jack and over a period of three weeks he was able to enter the school building. The cherry on the top of this tale was as we were leaving for summer break, six months after our ‘car therapy’ sessions, Jack shouted down the corridor to me “have a good summer, Miss!” – astounding!

There are many techniques and therapies that can be used to support children with Selective Mutism. Here are some simple methods to try:

  1. Allow your child to ‘build up’ how they communicate. It maybe they communicate with gestures at first, with you supporting them to attempt to communicate by whispering single words, then sentences. Over time build this up to speaking one word at full volume.
  2. Praise all forms of communication. Be that a pointing finger or a whisper. Never reprimand them for not communicating.
  3. Allow them to see themselves as a role model. Video them when they are communicating at full volume. Use this to praise them, not to goad them.
  4. Ensure all adults are aware of your child’s communication needs. Make sure teachers know not to ask them to speak out loud for example.
  5. Work collaboratively with your child and the adults that work with them. Be clear and transparent about your communication expectations in and out of school so your child knows what to expect in school.

Selective Mutism can be challenging, for everyone involved. If you are concerned about it speak with your GP, school Special Educational Needs Consultant (SENCO) or reach out to us at The SEN Expert.

The SEN Expert offers a range of services for young people, families and schools. We offer support for parents to help navigate the complex world of Special Educational Needs. We will work with you closely to ensure the best for your child.

The SEN Expert was set up by Claire in 2021 following a successful career spanning 12 years in school improvement, special educational needs, safeguarding and the arts.

Claire has worked as a Deputy Headteacher, Assistant Headteacher, Consultant and SENCO in both state and private schools in inner city London, the Southwest, the Midlands and the USA.

Throughout her career, Claire has ensured solid outcomes for the young people she has worked with. Be that a set of good exam grades, a placement in specialist setting or getting a part time job.

Claire is a working mother, and understands the challenges parents face trying to ensure their children are happy and successful. We aim to provide young people with a creative route to the personal and professional adult life they deserve.

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