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Should my daughter who might have selective mutism switch classes?

Answered by Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP

Q I believe my daughter might have selective mutism. She grew up speaking only Polish and at age three started attending preschool and that is where she started to learn English. She is now very fluent in both languages, however she does not speak at all at school or after school activities. In three months she will be turning four, so she could be moved to an older group at school. Fortunately she knows and loves the teacher for that group and I love her too. She's very warm, full of energy and a happy person, whereas the current teacher doesn't show too much interest in my child. Is it better to move my daughter to the older group where she will have the loving teacher but not know the classmates, or should she stay for a few months with the kids she already knows? I would like to start implementing some of the techniques with teachers but I am confused who I should be doing it with.

You’re asking really good questions here, but at this point I think it’s hard to answer what the best place for your daughter would be. Your daughter will do best in a classroom that is giving her the support that she needs, but until you determine what her needs are, it will be hard to get her that support, however warm the teacher or classroom is.

So first I think we need to know more about what she’s doing in her current classroom and if she does have selective mutism. From what you are describing, it sounds like she might, and in fact SM is not uncommon in children who are bilingual. An evaluation will let you know for sure, and it will also provide guidelines so that your daughter gets treatment that is targeted to her individual needs. Also your daughter’s clinician can provide consultations to her school about which classroom might be best and how to either keep her in her current class or transition her to another one.

I will say that it can sometimes be hard to get a child with selective mutism to talk in front of someone she has a history of not talking around. The more she is used to not talking in front of her teacher, for example, the more ingrained it will be. However, if she feels comfortable with the teacher and the teacher is using the recommended treatment techniques, then it’s certainly worth trying.

Finally, if you do decide to move your daughter into the new classroom, I would suggest having strategies and techniques in place before she enters the class. This might mean doing things like visiting the classroom and seeing what it looks like and meeting with the teacher in a situation where she’s not immediately put in a position to answer questions or speak.