Ask An Expert / Selective Mutism

My daughter doesn’t talk at school or karate. Any advice on getting her to speak?

Getting an evaluation should be your top priority

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My daughter is now 5 years old and in Pre-K. She talks and is friendly at home and outside school, but she turns quiet upon entering school or karate school. Any advice on strategies we can do at school, especially inside the classroom to make her talk?

Without an evaluation I can’t be sure, but it sounds like your child may have selective mutism (SM), which is a condition in which a child is unable to speak in some settings and to some people. Kids who have SM aren’t being oppositional and refusing to talk, and they’re not just being shy. Rather, kids with SM really cannot speak at all (or above a whisper) in certain settings outside the home. This often comes in direct contrast to how they act with their families at home, where they may be little chatterboxes. For example, kids with SM may speak at home and with some friends, but may not speak to teachers or in outside activities. Sometimes, they don’t speak to relatives.

Your daughter should be given a comprehensive evaluation to see if she has selective mutism. Fortunately, there are excellent evidence-based behavioral treatments for SM, and the earlier treatment begins the better her prognosis will be. So getting a diagnosis should be a top priority.

While your impulse may be to tell her to just talk, for children with selective mutism it’s harder than that, and pressuring her won’t make talking any easier. For now I would try to limit the demands placed on her to speak in situations where she isn’t talking, because not speaking can become reinforcing over time. When you do notice her using her voice in settings that are difficult for her, make sure to give her specific praise (ie “Good job saying what you want to eat!”). If you do find that your daughter has selective mutism, once she begins the appropriate treatment you will both learn specific behavioral strategies to encourage her to talk.