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Supporting quiet children and reluctant talkers

‘How do you support children who only speak in certain situations and with certain people?’ is a frequently asked question from practitioners.

The worry is that children are missing out on making friends and developing their social skills, and are often concerned that because a child isn’t talking with them, observation and assessment of their communication skills is tricky. They are also keen to provide help early on. Have you ever felt like this?

What is selective mutism?

Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder that prevents children speaking in certain situations or in public (SMiRA), even though they may chat away with family at home. Early years practitioners are often the first to notice this as, even after a settling period, a child doesn't begin to speak in social situations.

The term 'selective' might suggest that children choose not to communicate and may not reflect the level of anxiety they are feeling; however this fear literally stops them in certain situations as a phobia would. It can also stop them from saying what they want, making choices or letting you know when they are hurt or upset.

How does a child receive a diagnosis of selective mutism?

The diagnosis is given after assessment with a professional, usually a speech and language therapist. The criteria for this diagnosis are:

  • It should interfere with the child’s education and social and cognitive development.
  • The duration of the disturbance is at least one month beyond the first month as school.
  • The failure to speak must not be due to a lack of knowledge of the language. (Wintgens)

More girls are reported as having a diagnosis of selective mutism than boys.

Why isn’t a child talking with me?

There can be different reason why children are quiet:

  • Learning a new language – children new to hearing and speaking English need lots of opportunities to watch and learn before they start speaking.
  • Shy children – children may be unsure of themselves and wary of new people. They may take time to feel comfortable but often welcome some help with joining in. They may communicate with you using gestures and non-verbally.
  • A child may be still developing their language skills and not have the sounds and words to talk. This usually happens if there is an underlying speech, language and communication need and would be apparent both at home and with you.
  • Children who can only speak in certain situations and with certain people may freeze and be unable to respond even using gestures.

What can I do to help?

  • Avoid putting pressure on a child to speak. This creates an expectation and children may respond by becoming more anxious. Instead build their confidence and support their self esteem. Developing this relationship so that you are someone they trust is a stepping stone for shy or quiet children to start speaking.
  • How can quiet children let you know what they want? Can they use gestures, eye contact or pictures?
  • Children who have  more complex issues with speaking in different situations will need help from other professionals and a structured programme from a speech and language therapist, educational psychologist or psychologist.

How can I asses and track their language and communication skills if they aren’t speaking?

Use observations for aspects such as attention and listening. You can also monitor their PSED development in your setting. You will have information that families have completed when children start with you, and this may have information about their communication. I often ask parents for lots of information about their talking at home to round out this picture and sometimes ask them to film them. If they are happy to share this with you, you might see another side of the child.

Where can I find out about courses and more information?

Every child is different and unique and there is no guaranteed age when children can overcome their anxiety about speaking.

We do know that the right help early on can help give children the confidence they need. Children with more embedded and complex anxieties about speaking will also take longer and need some additional help from specialists. Early support from practitioners is vital for identifying children who are struggling and supporting their communication skills. 

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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