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Tips for Helping Kids With Selective Mutism Go Back to School

What to tell the teacher and how to ease kids back in

Rachel Ehmke

If you have a youngster with selective mutism, it’s important to give her as much support as you can as she encounters a new teacher, in an unfamiliar classroom. Here are some steps you can take to help kids with SM get off to a good start.

Ease kids into new situations

  • The classroom: Check to see if the school will let you visit his new classroom before school starts. This is a great opportunity to help him become familiar with his new classroom before anyone else is around. Have a conversation there so that he starts building successful speaking experiences inside the classroom.
  • The teacher: Try to meet with the teacher ahead of time so that your child gets the chance to interact with her one-on-one. Don’t expect your child to talk to the teacher during this first interaction. Let the meeting be low pressure—maybe the teacher can introduce herself and give a tour of the classroom. If your child is up to it, maybe you can ask him a question that you know he definitely knows the answer to. You can practice letting him answer those questions at home before hand.
  • Extracurriculars: If your child is joining any new activities, ease into those, too. For example, showing up a little early to baseball practice can help your child get comfortable talking on the diamond before everyone else is there. Sharing information about SM with coaches and other adults who will be working with your child is also a good idea.

Tips for teachers on helping kids talk

A lot of teachers won’t have heard of selective mutism, so it is a good idea to give your child’s new teacher some basic information about what it is. Along with a description of SM, you can also give her these tips on how she can help your child get comfortable talking in the classroom.

  • Wait 5 seconds: We often don’t give kids enough time to respond. Waiting five seconds without repeating the question or letting other students answer for a child is a good rule of thumb. It also helps kids learn to tolerate their anxiety.
  • Use labeled praise: Instead of just saying “Great job!” be specific: “Great job telling us you brought lunch!” This way kids know exactly what they’re being praised for, and they feel motivated to keep doing it.
  • Ask questions that prompt verbal response. Instead of asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no—or, more often, nodding or shaking her head—ask a question that is more likely to prompt a verbal response. Try giving kids choices (“Would you like a puppy sticker or a star sticker?”) or asking more open-ended questions (“What should we play next?”).
  • Practice echoing: Repeat or paraphrase what the child is saying. This is reinforcing and lets her know that she’s been heard and understood. For kids who speak very quietly, repeating what they say also helps them participate in class.
  • Be a sportscaster: Do a play-by-play recap of what the child is doing: “You’re drawing a flower” or “I see you’re pointing to the picture in the book.” This helps convey interest in what the child is doing and is a good technique to connect even when she is being nonverbal.

Make a video

Making a quick home video of your child talking is a great way to introduce her to her new teacher and show him what she’s capable of. Plus, seeing how chatty and confident she is at home often increases a teacher’s buy-in to look for ways to increase her talking in the classroom.

If possible, let your child show her video to the teacher herself. This is one way for her to start communicating with her teacher and think of herself as a speaking person at school.

Arrange Plan Bs

For a child who isn’t ready to ask to use the bathroom, work out a plan in advance.

If she can use hand signals, work with the teacher ahead of time to arrange a signal she can use when she needs to go to the bathroom. If she’s not able to use signals, maybe for now there can be an understanding that she is allowed to go to the bathroom when she needs to without asking permission. Make sure that she knows where the bathroom is ahead of time, too.

Plan for regular check-ins with teacher

Make sure that your child’s teacher knows that you want to have an ongoing conversation about his progress. The teacher should feel free to contact you if she has questions, and you can tackle problem solving together. If your son is working with a treatment provider for SM, you can also put this person in touch with the teacher or the school as needed.

If your child has a 504 or IEP plan for accommodations, make sure that you know who is involved and how to reach them if you need to. To learn more about getting accommodations, contact the special education department at your school.