Anxiety - Selective Mutism

General Information

Some children who communicate appropriately for their age find themselves strangely unable to do so in particular settings or with certain people. Sometimes a reluctance to talk is tied to speech and language difficulties, but when this is ruled out, then being anxious is likely the cause. This kind of social anxiety is referred to as “selective mutism” and affects about 1% of students. It can sometimes be a surprise to parents to discover that their child, who seems relaxed and easygoing while at home or with friends in a playground, is silent in the classroom. And when teachers see signs of relaxed communication in the schoolyard but not in the classroom, they sometimes think the child is just not trying. It is important to realize that the child wishes that the words would not get “stuck” in some situations and not in others. They need our help to finally free those words!

General Characteristics To Look For

At School
  • Usually right from kindergarten, the student does not speak in certain places (such as the classroom or the schoolyard)
  • The student can appear stiff or “freeze up” in situations where he/she is required to communicate.
  • The behaviour has lasted for more than one month.

  • The student may refrain from speaking to certain types of people; for example, he/she may be able to talk to one or two other students but never to an adult.
  • The student may be able to communicate with ease when at home, but parents may notice discomfort talking to people outside the home.

Impact On Student Success

  • Teachers may have difficulty assessing the learning needs and accomplishments of children who cannot use words to communicate, and children may feel that they are not progressing (even if they understand the work).
  • Students can lose out on building their social skills.
  • Students may lose out on development of the necessary verbal communication skills.
  • If children are not helped to free themselves of the hold that this form of anxiety has over them, they may become increasingly estranged from the school community and become school avoidant as they move into later grades.
  • Include children directly in communication that involves them, but be generous about what communication can include. It is important to acknowledge actions such as nodding, gesturing, and good eye contact as forms of communication.
  • Help make sure that children who are quiet are not invisible.
  • Remember that children who are dealing with mutism do not feel that they can “force” the words out—if they could, they would.
  • Maintain a positive and encouraging attitude as children take steps to be in charge of their ability to communicate.
  • Teachers are often the first to notice that a child’s inability to communicate in certain settings is causing them difficulties. Check in with parents and caregivers early if you see indicators that a child may be selectively mute. Ask how the child communicates with parents, with other adults, with siblings, with peers. Share specific information with parents regarding which settings are hard for the student at school.
  • Ask parents about speech and language milestones or issues in order to rule out possible speech and language needs.
  • Explore ACCOMMODATIONS that will allow assessment of the student’s learning.
  • Create the best possible fit between student and teacher/school supports.
  • Help teachers access consultation and resources to allow for assessment of student learning when a student seems to be struggling with mutism.
  • Help staff plan for opportunities that allow the student to show leadership at school in settings where talking may be less necessary or in an area where the student feels comfortable talking.
  • Watch for early signs of mutism when your child enters school—talk to the teacher about how your child is communicating with peers, in the classroom, in groups, and one-on-one with educators.
  • Try not to talk for your child. Help expand the environments where your child is communicating effectively. Use small steps (for example, encourage your child to order his/her own ice cream flavour) and quietly tell them when you notice successes (“great job letting the lady know what flavour you wanted!”).
  • Try not to refer to your child as shy when describing him/her to others.
  • Maintain an encouraging, relaxed approach.
  • Gather information regarding the child across all domains—home, school, and recreation settings.
  • Build plans that can be consistently supported at home and school, and help parents and the school team implement these plans together.