Ask An Expert / Selective Mutism

What should a teacher do if parents aren’t concerned about selective mutism?

Parents need to get a clear picture of what's happening at the school

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

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

Child Mind Institute

I am a speech-language pathologist in a public elementary school, and we have three children who we believe display symptoms of selective mutism. We've had classroom teachers express concerns regarding a student's lack of speaking in class and the parents' response has been, "We're not concerned; she speaks at home." How can the classroom teacher shift the conversation?

This is a great question, and one that goes to the definition of selective mutism: a child who talks freely at home but can’t speak at school or other social settings. It’s not surprising that some parents might not be concerned about their child’s not talking in school if she a fabulous chatterbox at home and with other people.

But a classroom teacher is right to be concerned if a child isn’t verbalizing, and it’s clear that it’s not transient. If she’s tried to address it with parents, and hasn’t been met with openness, this is probably a time to bring in a school psychologist or other member of the school staff or administration who can meet with the parents and express the concerns.

It’s not the teacher’s role to diagnose, but it is her role to share her observations, and make them specific enough that parents get a clear picture of their child’s struggle, and what she’s missing out on. The teacher might say, “I’m really glad she speaks at home, but I want to make sure you know what we’re seeing at school. Your daughter comes to circle time, but isn’t able to participate. When it’s her turn to tell us what the weather is, she clams up. She looks like she wants to respond but can’t.”

The psychologist can let the parents know that it is not uncommon for kids with SM to be completely verbal at home or out in the community, but be painfully shut down at school, and that kids with SM respond well to effective treatment.

There’s no guarantee that parents will welcome this information, but keep in mind that a teacher who is mum about her concerns isn’t doing parents any favors. No one wants to find out, for instance, that a teacher has gone a whole year without sharing concerns that could make a difference in the happiness and learning of a child.