Selective Mutism

February 8, 2010 – 4:20 pm

A Guide to help professionals in school

Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder characterised by a child’s inability to speak in various social settings.  Usually these young people are able to speak to ‘selected’ people such as close family members or special friends or whenever they feel secure, comfortable and relaxed.  The problem most commonly starts in primary school children although adolescents can also develop the condition and if left unchecked it can develop into a serious social phobia.

When compared to shy or timid students, SM children are at the extreme end of the spectrum for timidity and shyness.  So much so, that their behavioural inhibition stimulates a pathological reaction in response to various social stressors.

It has been observed that SM children have a decreased threshold of excitability in the almond shaped area of the brain called the amygdala. Studies show that when confronted with a fearful scenario such as being asked a question in class, the amygdala receives signals of potential danger (from the sympathetic nervous system) and begins to set off a series of reactions resulting in the inability to speak.

SM pupils find social gatherings (such as the classroom) and attention from authority figures such as teachers extremely frightening.  Unlike adults, who can choose not to go into a place they dread, children have no choice when it comes to going into school and are thus expected to go into a fear-inducing situation every day.

How school staff can help

Firstly, it is important for teachers and school personnel to understand that the Selectively Mute pupil is not behaving in this way ‘on purpose’ or ‘trying to control a situation’.  They really do feel frozen with anxiety and fear and so cannot speak.

This inability to speak is not because of a learning disability, autism or pervasive developmental disorder; the cause is severe anxiety. It is important that the student is not streamlined into special educational classes or remedial classes but mainstreamed in a regular class.  Most SM youngsters have friends, some of whom are very protective of their classmate and may attempt to speak on her behalf to save her embarrassment.

For an SM teenager, school can be very difficult.  Teachers and peers expect pupils to interact and participate in activities; when they do not, attention is brought onto them which is last thing they want.

Knowing that the pupil is severely anxious, it becomes quite obvious that pressuring, punishing, coercing or bribing her to speak is completely inappropriate and counter-productive and likely to cause her to regress even further.

Understanding is needed

It is of the utmost importance that the school approach the SM student from an understanding and accepting perspective.  The main objective should be to do whatever possible to help her to feel comfortable and relaxed.

There are a variety of methods that a teacher can use to help SM.  Firstly, it is important not to ignore the pupil but to make an effort to get to know her in a completely accepting and unobtrusive manner.  Encourage her to find a kind of non-verbal communication that she is comfortable with, such as writing or nodding or shaking of the head.  Your aim is to get her to feel comfortable and safe in your presence.

Avoid making the student feel that you are waiting for her to speak as this expectation will accelerate the anxiety.

Avoid making a fuss if she does manage to speak as she may back away and feel embarrassed.

Through therapy, the SM pupil can be shown how to relax, learn strategies to deal with extreme anxiety levels and be helped to improve her confidence and self esteem.  There is no miracle cure, but if she is approached with patience and confidence, she will be more encouraged to develop constructive plans to help her to practise emerging from her nervous state.

  1. 2 Responses to “Selective Mutism”

  2. My child was never diagnosed with Selective Mutism, but loiokng back I see that she had some symptoms. It was a long time before I heard that she never spoke in Sunday School. She was loud and chatty at home with her 4 older siblings. She is now a teenager who is occasionally shy and quiet in new environments, but has joined the worship team, presented the message at church, and has led prayers. She just needed some time to find her voice.

    By Bren on Dec 4, 2012

  3. Thank you for sharing this Bren.

    By Sue Twort on Dec 13, 2012

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