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Some children are naturally quieter, they can talk well but may prefer to be alone or talk one-to-one. There is nothing wrong with having a quiet nature and below are some ideas to help children feel more comfortable about joining in.

Selective Mutism is relatively rare and is described as a phobia to talk, that has no specific cause. It is difficult to know how to respond. Recognising that Selective Mutism is an anxiety response, similar to a phobia, may help you to better understand your child’s difficulties.

  • Encouraging play:

    Allow the child to choose a friend to play with, encourage games that involve taking turns but have little focus on talking e.g. fishing game or building a tower.

    Give reassurance:

    Quiet children often needs lots of reassurance and will look for adult approval. Try to build up the child’s positive self-image with plenty of encouragement.

    Avoid applying pressure:

    This means that adults should not make statements / ask questions that demand speech, for example:

    • “Tell Aunty Val what you got for your birthday”
    • “What did you do at school today?”

    Instead, trial using the ‘I wonder’ phrase, for example:

    • “I’m wondering if you can remember any presents that you got for your birthday”
    • “I have been to the shops today; I wonder what you have done”

    Looking away from the child, rather than starting expectantly, after you have said an ‘I wonder’ phrase can also reduce the pressure to talk.

    Try to discuss this with all adults, to all agree to support them in the same way.

    Encourage other forms of communication:

    Praise and encourage other forms of communication such as facial expression, gesture and drawing.

    Create a positive and supportive atmosphere:

    Talk positively about the child and talk positively to the child. For example, praise the child for the good things they can do, and use positive praise around them.

  • How you can help

    • Think of the reluctance to speak as a result of anxiety about speaking, rather than your child being defiant.
    • Reassure your child that you know they have a lovely voice and that they find it difficult to speak in certain situations. Tell them that you understand.
    • Reassure them there is no pressure to talk. Encourage other ways to communicate, particularly with less familiar people e.g. waving instead of saying hello
    • Remove the pressure on yourself to make the child speak. Try not to feel worried if your child will not respond to someone; acknowledge that they find it hard at times.
    • Try to help the child feel secure and accepted as they are and that in time it will get easier.
    • Build confidence and reward any forms of communication, no matter how small.
    • Help your child to join in and play with others, for example you could say; Look I think George wants you to help him build a tower.’
    • Encourage your child to have play dates and reinforce activities they enjoy and are good at.
    • Praise things that your child can do well, that don’t involve talking.
    • When the child does use voice, it is essential to act as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

    Things which don’t help

    • Pressuring your child to speak.
    • Withholding rewards for not speaking the child wants to but can’t.
    • Bribing your child to talk will not help.
    • Using negative labels in front of the child, for example ‘he’s the quiet one’.  Try to discourage others from using these labels.

    Further information can be found at www.smira.org.uk

  • How you can help

    • Remember it’s anxiety that prevents the child from speaking, not a like or dislike for you.
    • Respond and reward all attempts at communications: eye contact, smiles, and nod. (e.g. ‘good looking’, or ‘lovely smile’.)
    • Let the child know that you understand and accept that they find speaking difficult.
    • If the child initiates interactions with you or another adult give praise, even if they do not manage to actually speak.
    • Encourage and support the child to build a relationship with a key member of staff.
    • Support the child or help structure a situation if the child looks

    lost or unsure: “George, can you help Ben tidy the books away?”

    • Involve parents in planning interventions to ensure that the approaches are jointly developed and agreed.
    • Use lots of social rewards: smiles, nods, “Well done”
    • Reward all efforts to communicate no matter how small.
    • Invest time in building up rapport and confidence through non-verbal activities.
    • Praise and encourage any skills that don’t involve talking, e.g. running, drawing, playing etc.
    • Provide activities where children dance talk or sing as a group and encourage other children to include the child in play.
    • Avoid increasing anxiety levels in children who have to wait their turn to speak, by instead asking who would like to tell or say something.
    • When the child does use voice, it is essential to act as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

    Things which don’t help

    • Pressurising the child to speak in any way.
    • Making any reference to any attempt to use voice.
    • Giving the child too much attention for either not speaking or for speaking. They are probably self-conscious and may feel uncomfortable with too much attention until they are more confident.
    • Using negative labels within their earshot: for instance telling a visitor “She’s the quiet one”. You should also discourage other children from using these labels.
    • Pressurising the child to mix with other children as much as their peers might do. They may need more help and support to join with other children.
    • Try to reduce the pressure on the pupil to talk
      • Avoid asking direct questions.
      • Instead tell them it’s ok not to talk as we understand how hard it is and that we are here to help.
    • Speak to the whole class about phobias and that we all have phobias of certain things e.g. spiders, the dark, balloons etc. There is no quick fix to overcoming a phobia.
    • Do encourage small group activities so that the pupil feels more relaxed. Could they be the recorder for a group?
    • Talk to the pupil about ways they can communicate with you. For example:
      • nodding their head yes and no,
      • keeping cards on the desk to answer yes and no,
      • Using a pass to go to the toilet.
      • Assure them that you are not going to try to make them talk, but need to find ways to communicate.
      • Let him know that if they ever feel comfortable enough to talk, that would be ok too.
      • Could they email you if they have queries about their homework?
    • Inform supply staff about the pupils’ difficulties and always prepare them for change in timetable.
    • Ensure there are enough seats in the classroom so the pupil doesn’t need to go to another room to collect a chair.
    • Allow them to sit with their friend.
    • Encourage talking in smaller groups instead of whole class situations
    • If someone does ask the child a question and they don’t answer say ‘it doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten, never mind’ or ‘that’s ok don’t worry’ and move the conversation on quickly away from the individual.
    • Silence can be rewarding, so try to reward the child when they join in, in anyway. 

    REMEMBER: When the child does use voice, it is essential to act as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

    Further information can be found at www.smira.org.uk

Useful Links

Selective Mutism

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For more information or if you have any questions please contact andrea.arnold@nhs.net

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