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Selective Mutism Factsheet (for Schools)

What Teachers Should Know

Selective mutism causes some kids and teens to be too fearful to talk in some situations. Students with selective mutism might be able to speak just fine in comfortable environments, like at home with family members. But they can't speak in other places or situations, like at school or in public.

Selective mutism is not a willful refusal to speak. It's an anxiety disorder, and experts think it's an extreme form of social phobia. Selective mutism is different from mutism. People with mutism never speak.

Kids and teens with social mutism might seem extremely shy or withdrawn, avoid eye contact, and remain motionless and expressionless, sometimes with awkward or stiff posture or body language.

Before school or social outings or events, kids and teens with social mutism may get headaches or stomachaches, or even vomit or have diarrhea.

Students with selective mutism may:

  • need preferential classroom seating near the teacher or a friend
  • need to use nonverbal communication to answer questions (pointing, nodding their heads, using thumbs up or down, or facial expressions, etc.)
  • need to complete verbal assignments on a one-to-one basis with a teacher or use adaptive equipment (video or photo presentations created at home, for example)
  • need to take tests in a special, comfortable area outside the classroom
  • miss class time to receive speech therapy or counseling
  • need small class sizes or small-group learning environments
  • need to visit the school nurse for anxiety medications
  • be socially isolated and at risk for bullying
  • benefit from having a 504 education plan

What Teachers Can Do

Social relationships can be extremely difficult for children with selective mutism. While such students can be at risk of being bullied, in other cases, classmates might take on protective roles and try to speak for their friends with selective mutism.

Teachers can help students with selective mutism by:

  • developing warm, supportive relationships, even if the interactions are nonverbal
  • easing anxiety in the classroom by pairing them up with a buddy
  • using small-group instruction and activities
  • encouraging participation, independence, and assertiveness in all classroom activities without pressuring them to speak

Maintaining communications with parents or guardians is vital to making students with selective mutism feel more at home in school.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date Reviewed: May 1, 2019

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