A Journey From Selective Mutism to Speaking

Have you every worked with a student with Selective Mutism?  In my 34 year teaching career, I’ve  come across only one student with this issue – she was one of my greatest challenges and also one of my greatest rewards!  I’ll call her Ann.

Ann first came to my attention in June when I was covering the Kindergarten classroom  so the teacher could get her end-of-year screeners completed.  We were discussing a story and I asked Ann a question.  Several classmates immediately called out, “Ann doesn’t talk”.    I let it go, but made a mental note to ask the teacher about her.  Sure enough, Ann had not said a single word in her classroom since arriving early in the school year!  Because she had come from another country and English was not her first language, the classroom teacher felt it was more of an adjustment issue and she would come around in time.   I was most concerned that she wouldn’t come around unless we started some intervention.  I had Mom in for a meeting and shared my concerns – Mom reported that Ann was very verbal at home and didn’t have any language problems in her native language.  She felt that perhaps it could have stemmed from an incident in her pre-school where the teacher had insisted they be silent in class – Ann had definitely taken this to heart!

Her mother, Grade 1 teacher and I connected early in September and decided that I would do some one-to-one work with her to try to get a picture of what we needed to do to best support her.   I knew I couldn’t just work on getting her to talk – I needed to show her that we were going to work on some skills together and the talking was secondary.  My strategy focused on developing trust, while teaching her the letters sounds.  In our very first session together,  I introduced her to Itchy and the alphabet program we were going to use.   I read the story for /c/ and brought out the Alphabet Book to show her the connection between the cookie and the /c/.  I made the sound for /c/ and asked her if she could say it.  She did!!  I got one /c/ sound out of her that day and was thrilled!

The second day, we did a little activity sheet together and she repeated some /c/ words for me.  More progress!  Through the next few days and weeks, she moved from words to sentences and began conversing with me on a daily basis.   I discovered a delightful little girl with a good sense of humour.   However, she still refused to speak in the classroom.  I would go down to the staff room and share something Ann had told me and her classroom teacher would shake her head in disbelief.  How to transfer this to the classroom??

I knew Ann had developed a friendship with another English Language Learner in her classroom (I’ll call her Lisa) so I asked her one day if she would like to invite Lisa to come down and play some letter games with her because Lisa needed to practice her letters too.  She thought that was a good idea and we embarked on the next part of our journey.  Ann and Lisa worked ever-so-well together and were such fun to work with.  In fact, they would become quite exuberant in my room and I’d frequently have to quieten them down!  Still no carry over to the classroom – what next?  We tried inviting two other students down to join our group and she would talk with them in my room but not back in the classroom.

I decided to try something different.  I knew Ann’s teacher was feeling badly that Ann would talk to me and not her so I shared that with Ann one day.  Without putting any pressure on her, I suggested that maybe we could invite her teacher down to see the work she was doing in my room and they could play a game together.  She had to think about that one for a few days, but finally agreed that we should do it.   Big success!!  We did it a few more times to get her comfortable interacting with her teacher in my room.

The next step was talking to Ann about communicating with her teacher in the classroom.  We asked her if she thought she could verbally ask to go to the washroom and she agreed to try that.  More progress!   We took very small steps through this time, supporting, encouraging but never pressuring.   The last thing we wanted was an incident that could set her back.

It wasn’t long before she was comfortable asking for other things and would interact verbally with her teacher and fellow students. By late Spring, Ann was participating verbally  in all classroom activities – her selective mutism was a thing of the past and she was a happy, productive member of her class!

What a sense of accomplishment!

In looking back, the key steps to that success were:

  • I didn’t put any pressure on her – she knew it would have been just fine if she hadn’t responded
  • I kept our times together fun
  • I let her know, through my actions and my body language,  that I liked her and that she was safe with me

With patience, perseverance and caring, selective mutism can be eliminated!

Not long ago, I shared an article on this topic on Facebook.   Here is the link to the article:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/health-advice/selective-mutism-health-parent-child-advice/?utm_content=buffer2d034&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer