When a Child with Selective Mutism Goes Back to School

When a Child with Selective Mutism Goes Back to School

Dear Developmental Doc,
My daughter is 5 years old and I think she has Selective Mutism. She is incredibly verbal at home but shy around strangers. Her camp counselor expressed concern that although she was friendly, she never spoke to anyone at camp. School starts in less than 2 weeks. I am worried that she will not be able to transition into kindergarten. Do you have any ideas to smooth the way?
Lourdes, South Pasadena, CA.

Dear Lourdes,
Selective Mutism is a psychiatric disorder that affects 7 out of every 1,000 children (almost as common as autism). It is an extreme form of social anxiety disorder where a child cannot speak in select settings, most typically at school, even though they can (usually) speak normally at home. There is little understanding and subsequently little empathy for these children who often are frozen with fear as they confront specific social settings. Although environmental stress plays an important role in anxiety and other mood disorders, most children with Selective Mutism have a hereditary predisposition to anxiety disorders. Fifteen years ago, this silence was seen as willful and manipulative. Children suffering from Selective Mutism are not choosing to be silent nor refusing to speak, nor are they being oppositional. They are so anxious they have developed dysfunctional coping skills to combat anxiety, which often includes avoiding social interactions.
Children with Selective Mutism are often misdiagnosed, from ‘just shy’ to autistic to oppositional and defiant to selectively mute. My first suggestion is to have your child properly assessed by a developmental specialist who is well versed in recognizing Selective Mutism, to ascertain whether or not your daughter is suffering from this disorder. Once diagnosed, there are various strategies to assure a safe and secure entrance into the new academic year.

Contact the principal of your daughter’s school and arrange for your child to mee her teacher a couple of days before school begins, and to orient herself to her new classroom.

Have your daughter make a picture or bring a sticker to this first meeting so the teacher can incorporate it into her classroom, and then on the first day of school, acknowledge your daughter’s contribution, thus elevating her status to her peers.

Have the child sit close to the teacher to assure full comprehension of the lesson plan and, if talking is difficult, allow your daughter to be the ‘teacher’s helper’ by assisting to pick out a peer to be called on. Again, this provides another strategy for your child to hold a significant place in her personal community.

Find out who your daughter likes to play with at school and encourage play dates up to three times a week to help her learn, through the natural system of play, how to navigate socially. These skills learned in the home environment are typically generalized back into the classroom.

If you feel that these issues need to be addressed more formally, ask your child’s school to have her assessed through an Individual Education Plan (IEP). These assessments may include a psychological, speech and health examination.

School transitions are a tough hurdle for most children. I appreciate your mindful approach not only to your daughter’s worries but also your desire to prepare a warm, inviting environment for her to succeed in and blossom.

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