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Selective mutism, quiet children and reluctant talkers

There is growing concern that selective mutism is on the rise in young children. Many early years professionals are contacting me through the I CAN Enquiry Service helpline to raise concerns over children who will not talk in their setting, but are very talkative elsewhere (such as at home).

For some adults, there is concern that these children are missing out on making friends and developing their social skills. When a child isn’t talking with early years professionals, it is challenging to fully assess their language and communication skills. In addition, there is a lot of confusion around what the best approaches might be to support quiet children to overcome their difficulties.

What is selective mutism?

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that prevents children speaking in certain situations or in public. They may chat away with family at home. Early years professionals are often the first to notice this as, even after a settling in period, some children still do not speak in the early years setting. In some cases, this can last for the entirety of their time in the setting.

The term 'selective' might lead people to believe that these children are intentionally choosing not to communicate, and may not reflect the level of anxiety they are feeling. However selective mutism is an anxiety disorder, and can be as debilitating as any other phobia – but in this case, it prevents children from speaking in certain situations. It can also stop them from being able to say what they want, make choices, or let you know when they are hurt or upset. The Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMiRA) is a useful online resource bank for further information on this complex condition.

How does a child receive a diagnosis of selective mutism?

The diagnosis is given after an assessment is carried out by a trained professional, usually a speech and language therapist. The criteria for this diagnosis are:

  • The child can speak freely in some situations but not others.
  • It should interfere with the child’s education, social and cognitive development.
  • The duration of the disturbance is at least one month beyond the first month at school/setting.
  • The difficulty must not be due to a lack of knowledge of the language.

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 reasons 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. It is not uncommon for children to go through a “silent period” when they are first exposed to a new language, and this can sometimes last several months.
  • Shy children – some children may be unsure of themselves and wary of new people. They may take time to feel comfortable, but will often welcome some help with joining in. They may communicate with you using gestures and non-verbally.
  • Language difficulties - a child may be still developing their language skills, and not yet 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 in the early years setting.
  • Selective mutism - 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 the child to speak. This creates an expectation and may result in the child becoming more anxious. Instead, build their confidence and support their self-esteem. Develop a relationship with them so that you are someone they trust. This can often be a stepping stone for shy or quiet children to start speaking.
  • Think of other ways for quiet children to participate, or to 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 assess and track their language and communication skills if they aren’t speaking?

You can use informal observations to track aspects of language and communication, such as attention and listening. You can also informally monitor their personal, social and emotional development (PSED) development in your setting. You will have written information that families have completed when children start with you, such as parent questionnaires about the child’s abilities, and this may have information about their child’s communication skills. I often ask parents for lots of information about their child’s talking at home to round out this picture, and sometimes even ask them to film their child at home. 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 getting the right support early on can help give children the confidence they need. Children with more embedded and complex anxieties about speaking will 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

Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. You can contact Jon directly on I CAN’s Enquiry Service by calling 0207 843 2544 or sending an email to enquiries@ican.org.uk.

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