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Children with selective mutism : mistakes and behaviours to avoid in classroom.

Children with selective mutism : mistakes and behaviours to avoid in classroom.

The selective mutism is a rare disorder, which usually starts in pre-school: the main and only characteristic is given by the child silence in given social situations. 

Let’s imagine a classroom. A classroom at kindergarden or primary school, but also a classroom in a secondary school.

There is a student, there at the back, she has a stiff posture, a different gaze compared to the others, sometimes she looks like a lost puppy, sometimes her eyes stare at the void, other times she is really attentive and is a good listener. She does not participate, neither raise her hand, nor even laugh.

It seems that opening her mouth to make any sound, even a laughter, requires an effort.

She does not speak neither with the teacher, nor with her schoolmates. She does not like sport or competition. It looks as if her unique goal is to be invisible. She is not autistic, nor has any physiological/functional problem which prevents her from speaking.

She observes  a lot, is clever, alert and sensitive.

The teacher speaks with the parents.

The parents describe another girl, but it’s always her, a talkative girl, an endless machine. They say that she reads well, that she is curious, cheerful and full of joy.

The symptom, the silence is called selective mutism.

Doctor Claudia Gorla, a psychotherapist with more than 100 cases solved explains : “the selective mutism is an anxiety disorder which affects children already during early childhood, generally when they attend the day care or the kindergarden, practically during their debut in society. The child leaves the family background and is in touch, for most of his day, with strangers which could threaten him. The reaction is the impossibility to speak, but not only, there is also a stiffness, a physical freezing”.


First of all it is important to know that the selective mutism is an SEN diagnosis.

It is necessary to collaborate completely with his family and the psychotherapist who follows the child. Without this co-operation it is difficult to create, around the child, a peaceful environment which can help him to feel at ease, because the main goal is not make the child TALK but to lower the anxiety.

“The problem is not the talking, it is the anxiety”. This is written on one of the slides which Doctors Ius and Gorla show during the IN FORMATION about selective mutism, workshops organized all over Italy. They ask the parents and teachers to forget the silence of the child.  A hard task, but necessary. They say that you have to concentrate on the abilities and put the deficiencies aside.

Silence is a symptom. It is a symptom of the  disorder which is different for every child, since every child has its own story, silence is unique and cannot be repeated.  I know it is difficult for a parent and for a teacher to forget “the silence”, one feels lost, powerless, failure is experienced too. We are not used to face silence. We want to defy, to try, just as if having the child talk could be a victory for us and not a relief for him.

Time and patience are needed.

It takes time for the child to decrease their anxiety. Once anxiety is reduced, the symptom slowly disappears too.

Have the patience to respect this lapse of time. Anxiety is a natural defense to face danger, when the threshold at which it is released is normal. “children with selective mutism are like these animals who pretend to be dead to avoid being captured by predators”, explains Dr Gorla.

When the level is low, it also begins in common situations like at school, or in presence of strangers or in new places and environments, and it difficult to control it.

Word gets blocked, it is “stuck” in the throat and it becomes impossible to speak. One strongly wants it but nothing can be done, it does not come out. There is no will in the child’s silence, it is not an oppositional behaviour, neither a tantrum, nor a prank towards the teacher or their classmates.

How can you think that a child could choose not to say “I must go to the toilet”, not to shout to his fidgety classmate “stop elbowing me», not to express his happiness, his joy for a good grade, his fondness with words.   Just try to imagine how strong the block is that it hinders the expression of his emotions.  The silence is the tip of the iceberg, the symptom, beneath everything is to be overcome, to be sorted out.

Don’t : don’t pressure speech. Don’t ask them to answer. Do not have them sit next to a smart one so as to help. Do not force him to speak. The child with a selective mutism does not have any delay in learning, they are a child like all the other. Do not make an oral exam. Replace the oral test by a written one.  Questions, doubts ? Can they at least read ? Ask the parents and then check by yourself : pronounce the word written in the book or the sentence and ask him to indicate it to you.

Organize small groups in which he can work peacefully. In case of circle time, try to find alternative systems to words, ask him to tell orally, for those who want it or in writing, or with a design.

There is also a series of tricks which can be achieved at school (go into first or after the lessons in the classrooms, one adult only with the child to bring the “word” to school, introduce a classmate, then two, and finally the teacher, etc.). They have to be agreed with the psychotherapist, with the teacher and with the child himself.  Please bear in mind that often the teachers are limited because of denied authorisations, lack of structures (care pathways) and low availability.

One piece of advice which is almost a prayer : never record the child’s voice without his permission, they would discover it sooner or later and you would lose their trust.

You can overcome selective mutism : this is good news. If diagnosis occurs early, so can the resolution. Otherwise you have to wait the necessary time needed by the child.

For children below 6, in Italy usually the psychotherapists work together with the teachers and the parents, without even seeing the kids. For children above that age, there could be a direct meeting with the psychotherapist.

Sometimes selective mutism goes on until adolescence and sometimes into adulthood. In this case everything changes, the same techniques used for young children cannot be applied at school or at home. The typical problems of this age are added to the one due to mutism.

But are time and patience also necessary in this case ? Sure, even more, because you can overcome selective  mutism sooner or later.

Adriana Cigni

translation of the article http://

translated by Françoise Vander Putten

 Phil Thomason