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Stuck with being Selectively Mute

In school, Sarah looks around warily, her body tense and making little eye-contact with people. She is quiet, and the few people with whom she speaks only hear her whisper, in spite of lots of encouragement and praise.

She learned a whole poem at home, whispered it to her Reading Teacher, and was ready to say it aloud in front of her class. But at the last minute, though she had agreed to do it, she was just not able to bring herself to say the poem in front of her class.

Significantly, she took an active part in her marking of all her classmates’ poetry recitation, and the thing she most commended was their ‘loudness’ – which is the very thing she just cannot do herself at school.

Also very significantly, Sarah took regular gymnastics lessons for several months, though only after a lot of persuasion. She excelled at it, so much so that she demonstrated in front of the children in school – a mammoth step for a little girl who is so painfully self-conscious in school.

It’s a while since I talked about Selective Mutism, but that’s not because all the Selective Mute children I know have been cured and don’t need any more help.

As with many things in life, the problems of Selectively Mute children often do not go away fully, or are worse for a while, or may transform into different difficulties.

When I first visited her home, after initially being a little shy, Sarah talked and chatted with me happily, telling me about what she likes to play and do at home.

I saw Sarah again soon after, she was a lively 6-year old chatting happily with her sister, then launching into a song and dance. And she didn’t even give her sister a chance to speak, But these were videos, in which Sarah (not her real name) showed a totally different little girl from the one we see in school.

At the beginning of the school year, we had good hopes that this year, after all her years of quiet and desperate ‘shyness’, she would be able to overcome the difficulty and start talking normally, confidently as she is at home.

But we are in the third term, and still the problem persists, even seems to have become worse, and we have not made progress with our plans made at the beginning of the year.

This is not uncommon when helping children with Selective Mutism, and it is important to recognise and remedy what has gone wrong – why is she ‘stuck’? ?

The 'Village' is needed here.

Unless everyone in her environment starts to really help Sarah, this problem will just persist. And it is very special ‘help’ she needs – from everybody.

  • Not pushing and cajoling her to talk.

  • Not telling her we know she can talk so why isn’t she talking?

  • Not getting a bit exasperated …

  • Not seeing her as manipulative, obstinate, attention seeking,

What Help?

1. Sarah badly needs to have regular sessions with her Key worker, to help her gain confidence and use her voice normally in a ‘safe’ place in school. This may take a while in Sarah’s case.

Usually a child with Selective Mutism is reassured when her Mum comes into school and spends some time with her, reading or playing a game. Then her Mum can act as Key worker, till one of the school staff who is allocated the role can take over from Mum, and the process of helping the child out of being mute can be fully supported in school.

However, in Sarah’s case, it seems that Sarah’s Mum is so anxious about her daughter’s Selective Mutism that she passes that anxiety on to Sarah. Sarah freezes up as soon as she enters the school gates, in a way that even her Mum cannot relieve.

So – the school must find a suitable person, able to spend the necessary time and be available in school, to be the Key worker. This Key worker will need to use other techniques to help Sarah start to use her voice naturally in school. Sarah may also need to have some help with her breathing and relaxing so she can talk.

2. Then the Key worker gradually needs to include others in Sarah’s ‘village’: her friends, her class teacher, step by step, slowly, slowly, so that progress can be maintained and Sarah does not slip back into her quiet whispering.

3. And while all that is happening, Sarah needs to feel that she is not being pressured, but facilitated in any oral work required of her in class: reading, projects, answering questions. Staff and teachers will not accept whispering, but will accept non-verbal responses: making choices, writing, or gesturing. Her project homework, and reading aloud, can be done by video-recording, till she is confident enough to present aloud in class.

Each day and week pass so quickly in school, and the end of the year is so nearly upon Sarah. Can she get past this huge obstacle of fear and start enjoying talking in school, as much as she does at home?

Yes, she can – but she cannot do it alone.

It’s over to the ‘Village’ to help her.

Sarah, her Mum, and her ‘Village’ would appreciate comments and sharing your experiences. I know she is not alone in dealing with this burden.

If you are tackling this sort of problem yourself and would like to have a support group, or some training, in Selective Mutism, please send me an email – even if there are only a couple of people who want this, I am happy to arrange it.

Best wishes

Margi Kulsoom

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