According to the Child Mind Institute, Selective Mutism, or “SM,” is “an anxiety disorder in which a child is unable to speak in certain settings or to certain people.” They outline some of the specific challenges faced by children with selective mutism: showing what they know, initiating conversations or play with peers, asking to use the restroom, and, in some cases, even being hesitant to use nonverbal communication.
While your first instinct might be to contact a speech therapist, you’ll want to consider the underlying anxiety or discomfort that could be causing the selective mutism. I’ve compiled a list of strategies to try, involving teachers, peers, school counselors, caregivers, and outside resources. Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or medical doctor, but these are strategies I’ve come across during my 13 years as a school counselor.
Strategies in the classroom
Strategies in the classroom may include:
- Asking the student to write or draw pictures in order to communicate responses.
- Encouraging the student to whisper-speak (to you, to peers, or to a puppet).
- Providing individual dry erase boards* to all children in the classroom.
- Allowing wait time for verbal responses without “rescuing” the student or repeating the question.
- Allowing for nonverbal means of responding (pointing to answers, thumbs up/down, etc.)
- Allowing the child to point to a feelings scale to indicate how he/she is feeling.
- Using positive reinforcement to encourage and reward desired behaviors.
- Offering a visual schedule or First/Then chart to provide visuals for the day to alleviate any anxiety over what comes next in the schedule.
- Providing a response spinner tool for simple answers to questions (Yes, no, I need to use the bathroom, I don’t understand this yet,” etc.
- Encouraging the student to write/draw in a journal or notebook.
- Asking the student what is/isn’t comfortable about their day at school.
- Offering choices or asking questions to elicit open-ended responses instead of yes-or-no responses.
- Echoing what the child says so the class or group can hear and the student feels like a participant in class.
Around the school
Involve other school staff members by:
- Encouraging your student to say his/her name (or student number) in the lunch line.
- Greeting staff members in the office.
- Offering to be a helper to a specialist, such as in the gym, library, music room, or art studio.
- Playing the telephone game with a group.
- Allowing the child to choose a peer buddy to communicate with during the school day.
- Including peers to help support the student (without speaking for him/her), start with whispering, then moving on to conversations.
Collaborating with caregivers
- Recording assignments at home to send in.
- Participating in brief phone conversations with the teacher (from home).
- Offering incentives at home if the child speaks at school.
- Visiting the home to hear the child speak at home.
- Allowing the student to send a video of himself talking (at home) to the teacher, and you send a video back.
- Reminding the caregiver not to rescue the child by providing answers for him/her.
Offering school resources
- Consulting with the speech therapist
- Collaborating with school counselor
Referring to community resources
Referral to outside counseling or a psychologist
- Sand tray
- Small goals: eye contact with specials teacher, waving to specials teacher, saying hi to teacher)
- Practice with counselor and then add peers to the session
- Teach coping strategies
- Positive self-talk
- Playing games like checkers or UNO
- Motivational rewards (interest inventory)
- Coping strategies to deal with the anxiety behind the selective mutism