Supporting children with selective mutism
Our recent article discussed how scary talking can be for children with selective mutism. The good news is that changes to your own communication style and the environment make a big difference to the happiness and confidence of your child. Remember that selective mutism is an anxiety disorder, so creating an environment for your child that is consistent, reassuring and non-demanding (i.e. not anxiety provoking!) is the best way to help them to start to communicate verbally.
- Don’t put pressure on your child to speak, wherever they are, even if they have spoken with that person or in that situation before.
- Avoid direct questions, and instead give opportunities to speak by:
- Making comments, e.g. ‘I like the blue monster’, ‘I can see Saira’s playing catch’
- Using rhetorical questions such as ‘I wonder…’, ‘Shall we…’, ‘how about…’ to give chances to talk, e.g. ‘I wonder if anyone in Year 3 has a pet cat’, ‘How about colouring this bit green…’
- Leaving pregnant pauses in your talk, so your child has the chance to talk if they’d like to
- If your child communicates non-verbally in some situations (e.g. with a gesture), accept this and respond to what the child was communicating, rather than focusing on how they were communicating
- Ensure your child has ways they can join in with activities at school, at friend’s houses or during clubs using other methods of communication, such as gestures, pictures to make choices or for common needs (e.g. a toilet pass), writing, etc.
- Don’t show your surprise or excitement when your child does talk in a new situation or to a new person. Even though you may mean it positively, it can reinforce the feelings that talking in front of others is unusual and difficult.
How you can help at home
- Have fun! Time spent together enjoying each other’s company, whether it’s playing, sharing a joke, or telling stories, is so valuable. The strong relationship your child has with you, and enjoyment they get from communicating with you, will help build their confidence.
- Take time to talk about each other’s thoughts and feelings, allowing your child to share as much as they are comfortable to. Your child may also want to share their feelings with a favourite toy, or a pet. Older children might find keeping a diary helpful.
- Show empathy with your child’s anxieties around communication, by acknowledging these. You can also reassure the child that it won’t always be this difficult to talk. You might find a book about selective mutism a helpful way to start this discussion.
- All siblings are equal. Remind all family members not to speak for the child with selective mutism, but also don’t worry about reminding all children (even your child with selective mutism!) that they need to take turns to talk – turn-taking is an important life skill.
- Focus on what your child can do, rather than the selective mutism. This can be as simple as asking them what they enjoyed doing at school that day, rather than whether/who they spoke to.
- Encourage your child to join clubs and activities that match their interests, such as sports or craft clubs. As well as being fun, this supports your child’s social skills development. Talk to the group leader beforehand about selective mutism so they understand not to put your child ‘on the spot’ to communicate.
Tips for your child’s teachers
- Don’t try to ‘trick the child out’ into talking when someone else is nearby and they don’t know. Trust is vital to making sure the child feels secure and building their confidence.
- Don’t offer bribes or punishments for talking or not talking, and discourage others from doing the same. Instead, encourage joining in with activities in whichever way they can
- Don’t allow others to answer for the child with selective mutism. If they are, consider what kinds of questions you are asking the child (remember one of our golden rules – no direct questions) and what kinds of non-verbal responses the child could give that they are comfortable with.
- Accept other methods of communication. For example, a nod or a hand up could be used as a response to the register. Allow the child to bring in photos, pictures or items to show the class if other children are talking e.g. about their holidays or experiences. If the child is happy to, they could record on a Dictaphone or mobile phone video their contribution – but only if they know they’re being recorded and what it’s for. Trust is vital!
- Prepare for transitions (such as moving up to the next year, or a new teacher taking over the class). Tell the child in advance about these transitions, as well as training any new adults, and making sure they are aware of any support strategies used to enable the child to communicate non-verbally.
Education, education, education
- Educate yourself. Look at reputable sources of information such as smira.org.uk , or “The Selective Mutism Resource Manual: 2nd edition” (2016) by Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgens. Knowledge is power to help your child!
- Educate others. You may find your child’s teachers or club leaders have no previous experience of selective mutism, so don’t be reluctant to pass on basic information (such as our last blog post link, or leaflets on smira.org.uk) and encourage them to attend training offered by local services such as Speech and Language therapy or Educational Psychology
- Build your own support network – there is an active SMIRA Facebook group, and website (smira.org.uk)
One last word of encouragement – patience and perseverance with these changes to the adults’ communication styles and the environment around your child will pay off in time.
Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist