Ask An Expert / Selective Mutism

I’m homeschooling my daughter with selective mutism because the school wouldn’t help her. Am I doing the right thing?

Keeping her at home may be reinforcing her anxiety

Laura Kirmayer, PhD, MSW

Laura Kirmayer, PhD, MSW

My 6-year-old daughter has selective mutism and was having a hard time in school. The kids and even the teachers were being ugly to her and she wouldn't be included in things because she wouldn't talk. I would read about the things that the teacher could do to help my daughter at school but the teacher wouldn't and would call my daughter stubborn. We are homeschooling her now and she is doing very well with it. I just have some concerns for her. When she gets older and goes to college or work I would want her to start talking to people she doesn't know. I'm scared to send her back to school unless I know someone can help her. Am I doing the right thing by homeschooling her? I'm looking into therapy to help her.

I am so sorry to hear of your daughter’s experience at school. I can imagine this was incredibly painful for you both to endure and is certainly not the school experience your daughter deserves. You are not alone in feeling frustrated with the lack of understanding of selective mutism. Many well-intended individuals may misinterpret some of the symptoms of SM as willfulness, defiance or stubbornness. But as you are aware, a child who is overwhelmed with anxiety is unable to verbalize in certain settings despite her strong desire to.

I understand why you took your daughter out of a hostile environment, but I also share your concern about the long-term effects on her social and emotional development if she is not in a school environment. Your instinct to remove her from the situation and protect her from further harm is natural, but unfortunately it is also unintentionally reinforcing her avoidance of social situations and her inability to verbalize to others.

Please believe me when I say that there are fabulous teachers and school environments that will embrace a collaborative team approach to support and scaffold your daughter so that she can thrive in school. But the longer she remains outside of a school environment the harder it will become, and her anxiety will likely worsen.

You are absolutely on the right track in seeking treatment for your daughter. A good treatment provider should start by giving your daughter a comprehensive evaluation to make sure that all of her needs are addressed. Families sometimes also find that working with a clinician who has performed an evaluation is useful backup when collaborating with the school.

Try to find a therapist who has experience with selective mutism. The evidence-based treatment for SM is behavioral therapy that heavily integrates the school into the treatment process. Since your daughter has been away from school, the therapist should ideally be helping your daughter transition back into a healthy, supportive school setting.