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Let’s face it: many, if not most, children would rather stay home than go to school. Most children are ecstatic to have a snow day, a long weekend, and winter and summer vacations. However, once they are at school, they become happily distracted by interacting with their friends, the day’s lessons, lunchtime, and recess. Sadly, this isn’t so for the child with Selective Mutism (S.M), a childhood anxiety disorder in which the child is mute in certain social situations, particularly school. Over ninety percent of children with selective mutism also have social phobias.

We all have had that presentation, speech, or interview that made us a little nervous beforehand. We may have had difficulty sleeping the night before the first day of school and had butterflies in our stomachs upon waking. Individuals with social phobia have an irrational fear and anxiety with everyday interactions. They fear being judged, embarrassed, or having to talk with others. This extreme worry may happen days or weeks before the event and may occur in all social situations or just with certain ones. This terrifying fear cannot be controlled and often interferes with adults attending work and children attending school.

How does this condition manifest?

For the child with Selective Mutism, this social phobia will usually manifest and present in the classroom as stage fright. The child may feel their heart racing, they may feel nauseous, they may sweat, and their face may be marked with a frozen, “deer in the headlights” type of countenance.

Anxiety can be so severe for the S.M. child that just the thought of going to school and confronting other children and teachers may be enough to bring on an array of physical symptoms.

~Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum

For other children with selective mutism, they may appear to be relaxed and comfortable in the classroom. You may notice them smiling, volunteering by raising their hand, and even verbally communicating through whispering or mouthing words. However, looks can be deceiving. With my son, after three years in the same school, he progressed to the point where he would whisper to the teacher, raise his hand and whisper answers, smile, and appear to be having fun. Of course, he never whispered to any of his classmates, but he did move beyond parallel play at recess and interacted nonverbally with friends. But this is only part of the story. Nobody but my husband and I knew of the temper tantrums, meltdowns, anxious thoughts, and reluctance to go to bed at night and school the following day.

My son with selective mutism

The fact that my son had progressed to the point where he at least appeared to be more comfortable within a classroom setting meant that he had learned to manage his anxious thoughts. In addition, he had made significant strides in learning healthy ways to cope with his fears. So much so that his kindergarten teachers often told me how happy he seemed and was in disbelief when I shared some of the behaviors we dealt with at home.

As with any person dealing with anxiety or any other psychological, emotional, or physical disability, it is imperative to learn how to manage our challenges and learn to compensate. This becomes very tricky for the individual with selective mutism if she is still in a nonverbal stage. Imagine being frightened, scared, ill, happy, sad, or mad and unable to express those feelings!

As parents and educators, we may be frustrated and overwhelmed with how to reach students with selective mutism and anxiety. Next time, I will share a few ways to reduce anxiety in children.

 I share this both as a teacher and as a parent to a child with selective mutism and social phobia. I share this to inform you not to throw around yet another label or disorder but to network together to solve this population of children with no voice.  

I've been a reading specialist for the last ten years and most recently a literacy coach for Pre-K...

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