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My Child Won't Talk at School

In your question you indicated your child won't talk in school in a normal tone of voice and only whispers to his teachers. On the contrary, at home he is chatty and verbal. Your response to this situation was to take him out of school and homeschool him. Since I don't know much more about the situation, you must have been very concerned about him to hold him out of school. It sounds like you have a plan to send him back to school in the near future but are unsure how to proceed and how serious this whispering is.

The behavior you describe might be a form of social anxiety known as "selective mutism." According to The Selective Mutism Group~Childhood Anxiety Network, "selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child's inability to speak in select social settings, such as school." Specific features of this disorder are described in the 2000 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (pp.125-127) this way:

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations (in which there is an expectation for speaking, e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations.
  • Interference with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication.
  • A duration of at least one month (not limited to the first month of school).
  • A failure to speak that is not due to a lack of knowledge of, or comfort with, the spoken language required in the social situation.

These children understand language and are able to talk normally in settings where they are comfortable, secure and relaxed, as you described he does when he is at home with you.

No one knows why children develop this reluctance to speak in front of a group of people or feel embarrassed easily. What is clear is that children and adolescents with SM have an actual fear of speaking and of social interactions where there is an expectation to talk. They may also be unable to communicate nonverbally, unable to make eye contact and may stand motionless with fear as they are confronted with specific social settings. Your child may have a mild form of this because he does whisper to the teacher, a positive sign that he isn't so anxious he won't communicate at all.

For a parent this can be very difficult to observe in your child. For the child, it is often very debilitating. Very often, these children show signs of anxiety, such as difficulty separating from parents, moodiness, clinging behavior, inflexibility, sleep problems, frequent tantrums and crying, and extreme shyness from infancy on. When they reach the age when they begin to interact socially outside the family environment, their persistent fear of speaking or communicating begins to manifest in symptoms like whispering. The social anxiety responses are triggered by social interactions in settings such as school, the playground or social gatherings.

The treatment for selective mutism as with most social anxiety disorders is through behavioral cognitive therapy, and through patience and acceptance on the part of the parent or caregiver. Parents should remove all pressure and expectations for the child to speak, conveying to their child that they understand he feels scared to speak or has difficulty speaking at times.

Since selective mutism is an anxiety disorder, successful treatment focuses on methods to lower anxiety and increase self-esteem, confidence and communication in social settings. The emphasis should never be on "getting a child to talk" but more on getting comfortable in the environment that is producing the anxiety.

First, determine when he demonstrates this behavior of whispering. If this only happens at school, then a program can be developed that will reduce his anxiety there. Using behavioral methods, a therapist or school mental health professional can work collaboratively with the teacher to help desensitize the child's anxiety. By eliminating all pressure to verbalize, the child's anxiety is lowered and confidence increases. Verbalization will usually follow. If this does not occur spontaneously, techniques can later be added to help encourage progress.

At home reward him for using his "big voice" or "grownup voice." He will learn that when he speaks in a normal tone that positive rewards follow. Again don't pressure him to talk, but do reward him when he does.

Working collaboratively with the school personnel and providing them with information regarding this disorder is helpful. Most school personnel have little experience in this area, so be patient and collaborate with them to find a workable solution for your child.

Apr 26,2010
Can you be older than 3,4, 5 etc. and still have this? Like could you be a teen and have this..or would it be called something else

Apr 21,2010
Hello, My four year old girl is not talking in school for two years now. she goes to a small private school where she gets lots of attention and affection from teachers. But she is still not talking, she communicates with them indirectly like nodding and will do her work in class,but wouldn't talk at all. sometimes they can't grade her because she has to talk to get a grade. we are thinking to put her in public school next year with her seven year old brother. she will be attending kindergarden, offcourse will have a large class, we are thinking maybe this change will break her silence. When she is at home, she talks a lot, sings, and is very talented in everything. what kind of advise you will give to me in raising her.

Mar 17,2010
Hi my son is three years old, he started pre-school since january and he's still not talking to the teacher. He only shakes his head when he is asked a question, but he's very verbal at home, can i get some advice on this please

Jan 15,2010
my son has a problem with selective mutism. He only talks at school and home. He shuts down at church, and around other family members. This really bothers me I don't know what to do, when I read this article I felt that there is hope. At least now I know that there is a term for what he does.

Oct 27,2009
Just read your article about 'selective mutism.' We have been working with my 12 year old for the past 6 years. However, we are having difficulty with academics. He's now in the 7th grade, but reading at a 3-4 grade level. How can we further overcome these challenges?

Jul 07,2009
This has helped my family a great deal! My son is five and entering Kindergarten in the Fall. He is extremely bright, has a great vocabulary, and is begining to read. However, he has always had a problem with speaking to people; he gets very nervous and clams up. It seems like he wants to say something, but just can't. We never knew why or what to do about this until now. My husband and I did some research online to see if this was a medical problem; it just seemed to go way beyond being 'shy'. I have made an appt. w/his pediatrician to discuss SM because I believe this is exactly what my son is suffering with. Thank you for this article!

Apr 30,2009
My kids has same symptom, any idea how to help?

Apr 07,2009
iv just read your article and found it very helpful. im a pre school teacher to a 3yr old who will not speak or even whisper, yet at playground time will excel at communicating with the babies. when her class mates and adults come near , she stops all communication and will only smile and watch. her parents say she is attending speach therapy and a child psychcologist , and that at home she is coming along great, confidence is growing daily along with speech. she has a baby sibling which would explain the confidence with the babies in the play yard. i would like to offer her parents support and work along side them to help the girl, but what activities in the class room can you recommend please, as so far she is reluctant to join in any class room interaction at all, even one to one with me.

Mar 23,2009
Hi there, My brother has three children. The oldest (18) is bi-polar. The next two, a 12 year old girl and and a 9 year old boy both suffer from selective mutism. Both will only whisper. Both are being home schooled. I was wondering if you have ever come across two children in the same family with the same syndrome. These kids live in Fairfield CT. Are you aware of any specialist in selective mutism in this area? Thanks.

Dec 03,2008
thank y for you advice. I have a question about my child I have a similar problem with my child, he is verbal at home but does not talk at school, or if someone that he does not know comes to our house, he stop talking and want to get everything by pointing or grabbing one of us by the arm. At times I think he does it for attention but I am not sure how to go about it. thank you

Jun 30,2008
hi my son started of just speacking to the family. but now since going on hoilday with my parents wont talk to me now or anyone im scared and dont no what to do

May 01,2008
'I have a little niece that is 6 yrs old, Kindergarten, she will not talk at school,she is one of the children in that grade that has made the most 100's on her papers and work. The school is talking about keeping her in K again, what would this do but kill what self esteem she has. How do we help her?

Mar 31,2008
I have a seven year old who has sm and she is seeing a psychiatrist and psychotherapist but the meds they put her on has been making her angry neither doctor is familar with sm if anyone can help with finding help in las vegas who knows about sm. Thanks

Mar 05,2008
I hope you will not be shocked by my saying that I am an 82 year old man who has returned to College and majoring in Physcology. Your subject of 'Selective Mutisim' is indeed a facinating subject to me and I will give my final oral relating to children who will not speak up in school. As a 'side', I can relate to this form of mental disorder for I too was one of those children who did not speak up in class but was a human terror on the outside. Have I changed?. Not only have I changed but I now can give a speech on almost any subject and make it last for hours in front of a multitude of people. What has caused this change? It is an interesting subject since my class at the moment is 'Human Development' I hope giving you this knowledge will assist others in giving that first talk in front of a group with my heart pounding so hard that I thought I would not be able to utter one word. But I have not only conquered that fear but am also writing books and hope I can someday publish one. Writing and speaking are now a hobby with me. Finally may i say that the change was not easy but very rewarding.

Feb 12,2008
Thank you for the article. I had a freind call me yesterday regarding a piece they saw on the Today Show regarding SM. They said 'Watch it. I think this may be what Drew has'. I do beleive my son has this. He has diarreha persistently and always complains of stomach aches. I now think this may be why. I'm worried and wondering what to do next? He shruggs his shoulders when spoken to by an adult in public and becomes almost frozen in that position. At home he is totally different. We have always said that it is like he has two different personalities.

Jan 23,2008
the advice is right on the money, but what do you do when your child was dx with sm and has an iep but the teacher is 'tired' of reading the material and is frustrated and does not want to do what the experts say. we have an iep but they just say my daughter is stubborn, which is not the case. i am a very frustrated mother. i am so tired of having meetings with the school and the committee ganging up on me. my problem is that the dr. quit to stay at home with the family, so i am on waiting lists. even though i have had 2 dr's call the school in the past they don't want to do anything by reading books or online information

Jan 22,2008
Wow...I never knew it was a disorder until I read this.My child is like this all the time at school,and he is in 7th grade.

Nov 14,2007
My son has Selective Mutisim and from everything we have wittnessed and discussed with Dr. Elisa Shippon-Blum elimininating pressure to speak has to be in conjunction with other techniques. Eliminating the pressure to speak and lowering anxiety will not in its self lead to spontaneous Verbilization. The mute behavior becomes ingrained in the childs personality and develops as a learned behavior for coping with anxiety. It needs to be un-learned. If you only remove the pressure to speak they continue to function in school in a mute way because being mute keeps their anxiety lowered.

Oct 19,2007
I have a four year old boy, who started school in September. He hasn't spoken one word at school since starting. The teacher has approached me saying we have to evaluate him. I have no concerns at home. He is a very confident child, who is very smart for his age. DO you have any suggestions to help me. I have heard of selective mutism, and as a Pre-School teacher have had sme experience with children who have SM. I don't truly believe that my son has it, I think he is playing games!

Oct 12,2007
My daughter had a severe case of Selective Mutism. The medicine Paxil helped her tremendously!! She now talks, sings and participates in all school activities. She has been on Paxil for one year and the difference is remarkable.

Oct 10,2007
Three comments did not receive public replies. All 3 are 'Frequently Asked Questions' in the Yahoo group Selectivemutismsupportgroup. Lay people and professionals answer from their own experience. Re: the 6/8 and 12 year olds mentioned, sounds like it could be SM. There's a link to a story about diagnosing here: along with other useful info. Past experience with SM is NOT essential. Desire to help the child is...very distinct from desire to gain compliance from child. A really good teacher or a parent with flexibility to actively intervene can help the child without 'priors'. an SM parent

Jul 26,2007
My daughter is now 11 years old. She is entering the 6th grade, and now makes this 7 years with selective mutism. The school she attends has made arrengements to make it easier for her, like having flash cards when younger, and now a white board.All of her friends know she doesn't talk, and opted to talk for her. Although I appreciate all the support I feel that this has incourage her to not talk.I am also scared that if she went to another school it will make her condition worst. I feel like I am running out of time. I don't want this to follow her to high school. Do you recommend I start Prozac on her? My biggest challenge has been finding a professional that has actually treated this condition. I usually find someone that has read about it. Can you help find someone in the Phoenix,AZ area.

May 21,2007
Would it be the same thing if my child will not speak to ANYONE besides me and my 12 yr.old nephew who now lives with me? At tmes she will speak to my mother whom we only see a few times a month, but more when she sees her as a playmate. She does not even whisper nor will she give eye contact, but will only shake her head yes or no for her responses. I sometimes feel like the mother kangaroo when my daughter is in an uncomfortable situation (which seems like always) can feel as if she needs to retreat to the 'pouch' for security. I'm at a loss at what to do.

May 17,2007
Does this hold true when a 6/8 ye old speaks like a baby at times. Is this also an anxiety problem? ev

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