Ask An Expert / Selective Mutism

Can a special ed tutor help support a child with selective mutism?

Treatment takes a team approach

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

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

Child Mind Institute

I was hired about a year ago to help a little girl with selective mutism "open up" and hopefully talk. I am a special ed tutor. I have never worked with a SM child before. Her parents have attended a week's training and I am helping put into action the methods that the parents learned. She laughs and smiles and loves to "play" with me — but still cannot look in my direction or answer me directly.

I want so much to help her. I know that this is a long process. I just worry that maybe I'm not the right person and she should have a more specialized person to work with her. I guess that I need reassurance or advice.

It’s wonderful that you’re reaching out and even the fact that you’re asking these questions about your qualifications and if you should be doing more shows that you are a caring and responsible educator with an exquisite awareness of what’s going on. It is also great that you have a special ed background, because you are used to working with kids who need more specialized attention. The fact that you’ve never worked with a child with SM before is not all that surprising because many people in the field of child mental health and even child anxiety haven’t either.

Treatment for kids with SM is generally goal-focused. I don’t know what goals the child you are working with has, but in general we tend to be less concerned with eye contact, as that is something that will come later. I hope that if she isn’t answering you directly yet, that is a goal she is moving towards (and part of the larger goal for her to speak to more people in more places). You’re absolutely right that this is a long process, but it is great that her parents have already attended some training. You might also benefit from doing some training yourself, or viewing some of our Parent and Educator Workshops on SM or visiting the Selective Mutism Group website.

Since you are feeling concerned, it would be a good idea to go back to the team that you are working with — the parents and whoever their treatment provider is — and voice your concerns so that you can get feedback on what you’re doing. This will hopefully lead to reassurance and answer any critical questions that you might have. This is also another way to make sure that everybody has a unified set of goals.

You shouldn’t feel like you are the standalone interventionist. Remember that you are part of a larger team and your role is to help scaffold things for the child while she needs it. If you need some reassurance or have a question, the other members of the treatment team should be there to support you.