Ask An Expert / Learning

I’m working with a student who doesn’t want to read out loud and is unresponsive in class. Please help!

Kids who freeze when asked to speak or perform in class may be acutely anxious

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Interim Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

I am having a real issue helping a 7-year-old girl who I have been working with for the past few months. She has been seeing me for language issues, but the only issue I see is that she does not like to read out loud. I have heard her read and she is quite able. In fact, she is in the first grade and reads at at least the middle of second grade. Most of the time she will not participate when we are together and I have to revert to something unrelated to what her teacher would like us to work on.Her other teachers have mentioned that when it comes time to taking a turn during a game, or playing an instrumental part her class is working on, or singing, she outright refuses by becoming totally unresponsive. The teacher will ask a question, ask her to play a note, or take a step, or even just to stand up and she will sit and stare in silence. The teacher has stated they have waited up to several minutes and she will not budge. It's a problem because we have no idea where she is musically. Please help!!!

Thanks so much for reaching out. This child’s teachers are having a hard time gauging where she is academically or musically, which is certainly a problem. Likewise, you are seeing signs that she is actually reading at an advanced level, but something is preventing her from demonstrating that.

From what you’re saying it sounds like when she doesn’t comply with an order she isn’t verbally saying that she does not want to do it, she just freezes. Sometimes kids stare in silence when they don’t fully understand what’s being asked of them. But some of the things you’re describing are very simple, like taking a step or standing up, so that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Some kids will refuse to do things because they are being defiant, but in my experience many of the kids I’ve worked with who have this kind of freezing behavior may actually be anxious. It may look like they are “refusing” to do something, but actually they’re experiencing a lot of distress and aren’t able to do what they’re being asked to do. She may have selective mutism, which is an anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak or interact in some settings or around some people. She could also have social anxiety disorder, which is intense self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment in some social situations.

I suggest that all the members of the team working with this child, along with her parents, sit down together to get more information. Talk about what everyone is observing, and the context in which it happens, and any other variables that might be at play here. Even if she’s already had an evaluation, it sounds like it would be appropriate to do an assessment to see if she has a potential anxiety disorder.