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My child won't talk at school

By Dr. Joseph Gianesin, Behavioral Consultant

Question:

My second-grader won't talk in school. He only whispers to his teacher, which is frustrating to the teacher. Outside of school he is a chatterbox. Because of this we've taken him out of school and he is being homeschooled. What should we be doing now so that when he goes back to school he can be more open to speak up?

Answer:

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.


Dr. Joseph Gianesin is a professor at Springfield College School of Social Work. He has more than 25 years of experience as a child and family therapist, a school social worker and a school administrator. Along with his academic appointment, Dr. Gianesin is a program and behavioral consultant for public schools in Massachusetts, helping them develop and manage programs for children with significant mental health problems.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/11/2012:
"My daughter is 14 she too have not spoken at school. But I can see that she wanted to speak this is fustrating not only to me but also to her. "
07/5/2012:
"My daughter is 5 years old. In pre-kindergarten she never said a word to her teacher all year. In kindergarten the same seemed to be happening, after Christmas vacation the teacher developed a plan where every day my daughter said a word to her she would get a sticker on a special sheet, after 10 stickers she got a reward and a prize. Next she had to say a sentence 10 times, lastly she had to say a sentence in front of the class. School ended before she finished her last goal, but it REALLY helped her open up. Now she's at summer day camp and has gone back into her shell clinging to me and crying when I go to drop her off, I'm hoping things will get better in grade 1. "
05/21/2012:
"my daughter been this way since she was little i had her in head start program at age 8 months old until she was 5 she never spoke to anyone there no her being in school she wont say a word to kids or the teacher , at home she talks are ears off , but in school she wont speak at all "
03/27/2012:
"I am a Children's Centre Worker. I have worked with quite a few children like this and I would just like to say to you that things turn out fine. They usually start to talk when they are ready and then it is like a verbal explosion. But you must remember to give them time and make them feel comfortable and relaxed. "
03/19/2012:
"I wish my parents could have read this article when I was younger, then maybe I wouldn't still be that awkward shy kid... "
03/8/2012:
"My three year old daughter has this disorder. My daughter started preschool this year and refuses to talk to her teachers. She talks alll the time at home (non-stop). She also communicates well when she attends her dance classes. I was shocked to learn at her first PTA that she does not talk to her teachers. She will however talk to the other students in her class. At least I know that there is a name for this now. I am praying that she will grow out of this soon. "
03/6/2012:
"my son is three he wont speak at all at nursery school ,only if i go in he will speak to me he will be four in july and am so worried about him dont know what to do or were to turn any help would be greatfully received "
03/6/2012:
"My daughter is 3 and has been in preschool for 5months now. She had alway been very shy. I thought school would bring her out of her schell. But she is still not talking to her teachers only nods. She talks non stop at home. She is a very bright independent girl, she even talked at a early age. She has had two preschool screening test and she won't talk to give answers, I know she know the answers and what to do. They want to send her to Special Ed class becuase she didnt pass the screening. Reading these post about Selective mutim, I think she may have this disorder. But my question is that i feel she doesn't need special help with learning, she just needs to come out of her schell. Would this benefit her? Do kids with selective mutism need a special class? "
03/5/2012:
"My daughter is 4 1/2 and has been going to preschool for two years. It is time to register her for kindergarten, and her evaluation is awful because she refuses to talk to her teachers. In fact, she rarely talks at school at all-- even to her friends-- except in a whisper. At home, at friends' houses, and in other situations she will talk (sometimes more than we would like!!!)... but not at school. It is really frustrating to see sucha poor evaluation of my child when I know she is able to complete the tasks on their lists with ease. I mean, they couldn't even assess her on colors and shapes, which she has known since she was like eighteen months old! She has a phenomenal vocabulary, is very talented artistically, and is in the letter-name stage as she should be with her reading/spelling skills. I am going crazy because I am wondering where I have failed since she will not speak to these teachers, and, worse, I am fearful that they will not allow her to begin kindergarten. T! his would be a terrible disservice as I know her skillset to be well beyond what is needed for kindergarten... Please help!!!! What do you advise? Thank you! "
02/6/2012:
"my daughter rejoyce is 4 1/2 years old.shes in the preschool right now but still dont talk to the teacher even whisper sound she dont want it..but shes very brilliant girl and she talk alot with me and my family as well.but around people she dont speak any words.she just stand and listen.at all she dont want to talk.its almost 6 months in school but still dont want to talk.what to do?the teacher sometimes their ignoring her bec.she dont want to talk...im encourage her but still..im worrying when she go to kinder garden...help thanks "
02/1/2012:
"Hello my child Curtis is 5 and dose not talk in school he wont look at anyone when there talking to him he talks fine at home he has a 4 year old brother they play and fight like any other kids there age lol but when hes out and meets new people he wont talk to them at all not just school any one he dosent know and sometimes even family members he dosnt see to offten his school has been calling me telling me i have to get this fixed im starting to feel like a bad mom i have tryed talking to him and leting him know its ok to talk to the teachers i try reminding him to tell the teachers and other kids the fun stuff he did on the weekend but still he says nothing im going to make an apt with our family doctor and see if theres something he could tell me something to try but im at a loss i dont no what to do i love both my boys there my heart and soul and i feel like im failing them any helpful hints would be great thank you so much Jenny-Lynn Lavoie "
01/19/2012:
"Hi, i'm 12 and my parents have been presurring me to talk ever since one of my teachers wrote that " im not being active" at school like talking or raising my hand to answer a question. Im active at home all the time though, i talk to my parents and my brothers like their my real friends and i can share every secret. but when i go to school its like im a whole different person. I even sound totally different. i try to avoid my brothers so they wont ask why i talk like this but its so embarrissing. i even started going on online chats so i can practice talking topeople. my parents want me to start talking to boys and almost every boy avoids me and never says aword. i dont like like anyone at my school,but im hurt they wouldnt even want to sit by me just cuz i never say anything. i can barely talk to any girls either, a few girls talk to me to be nice, but i only have one friend. i think she feels sorry for me or something becuz she was picked on at her old school. i go to a p! rivate school so its really nice. i think i would makea lot of friends if i acted like myself but im scared to idk y but i just cant. im not like one of those omg girls or random people just a person i think. the reason im telling u all of this person info is becuz this problem is getting serious. when i first started school i would blab all the time. but i slowly stopped in fourth grade. 4 boys even asked me out before 5th grade. i think even my parents are getting tired of me and want my oldself back. my parents are really strict so whenever i talk to them i have a weak scared voice. my mom also has a nontalking problem too, but i dnt think iwas born with it if i talked in earlier years so their might be help. i really just want to talk and be loud at school like everybody else. i dont even care if i get in trouble for blabbing i just feel like a left out computer playing person. if you have any help furthermore than this advice i wud really apprectiate it, i already figu! red out the activity trick :) thanks so much "
12/5/2011:
"I'm nearly 13 and I have the same problem if a teacher asks me a question in class I panic and feel like I'm about to cry :( "
11/7/2011:
"This is the most inappropriate place to put women in blindfolds in commercials that I've ever seen. Nice job. I asked about kids who whisper about abuse. "
08/29/2011:
"My child will not talk in school or to other people, he sometime have behavior in school fighting and throwing things around i do not know to do because, of this he is not learning well in school is there any help out there for him? "
08/9/2011:
"hi my 5 year old daughters the same but she wont talk to anyone only me and her dad,she hasent talked all through pre school and is starting primary in 3 weeks,im worried because i know she wont talk.she wont talk to my mam or any other family members,im at my wits end.any help would be grateful,thanks. "
02/21/2011:
"I want parents to know that they should not wait overly-long to address signs of Selective Mutism. For some children, the problem is only one of anxiety, and parents should consult a licensed child guidance professional. But many children with SM have undiagnosed speech-language delays or disorders. Consult a Speech-Language Pathologist for evaluation and treatment. (The school is obligated to provide an evaluation if parents request it in writing.) If speech-language delay or disorder is present, the child's SLP and counselor or therapist should be willing to team up to treat the problems. Intervention plans should consider both the home and the school or other environments where the child has trouble communicating. Speech-Language Pathologist"
02/16/2011:
"My 5 years old speaks just some words with his friends at the preschool but almost never to the teacher or in front of the group. At home we speak in Spanish and at school he has to speak in french. The teacher tells me that he is very intelligent, understands everything, follows instructions and that he is happy playing whith the other children. The teacher is worried about him because in 6 months he will start school. I think that being exposed to many languages at the same time (Spanish at home and with the close friends, English from the TV and French at the pre-school) he has developed a SM in languages. A friend suggested to me to speak with him in French at home and like that he would feel more comfortable to speak with me in the language which he is not comfortable. Do anyone can give me an advice?"
09/30/2010:
"My 5 year old little girl has just started big school after being in preschool for two years previous where she did not speak to any child or adult. Now that she is in school she refuses to talk. she is excited going in and loves school but will not talk. I had to ask the teacher if she could go to the toilet without asking as she was holding on until she came home as she wouldn't ask. she plays with her older sister in the playground but she will be moving to another yard next year and I hope my little girl will cope. she whispers to me if there is anyone around. some of my family haven't even heard her speak. she is fun loving and playful at home with her sisters but I'm nervous that her confidence is not improving. she doesn't want people she doesn't know her to hear her speak. I have told her it doesn't matter and she can speak when ever she wants. what else can i do to help her"
09/23/2010:
"i am a prescholl teacher who has a child with selective mutism and was wondering if you had ant ideas for me to use in the class room"
07/23/2010:
"I think my daughter is a select mute. She only speaks to immediate family only. She never makes friends and she offends most adults due to her not speaking, responding and giving them a dead stare. I've spoke to her daily about saying hello when she enters a room but when we get in front of others she says nothing. It's very embarrassing for me and just heartbreaking. Most people think she's very rude and just unkind and that's not the case. She is a chatter box at home, full of life and would give anyway anything that she has. She's an honor roll student and extremely bright little girl. It's difficult for me to find childcare for her because she won't respond and it just drives most people crazy. I swear this situation is slowly killing me. She complains that she does not have friends but she has not reason why she won't speak and at least smile and be friendly. She really is unapproachable and most children just feel she is very weird."
07/21/2010:
"If anyone has had any sucess in soving this problem please email me what worked. I have a niece that is 11 years old put has NEVER spoken a work in school,churchetc. The only one she will speak to is her mother & father. She has never said a word at our family get togethers. My heart aches for her. Kids pick at her for being abnormal."
07/19/2010:
"Hopefully I will reassure some of you. My son was dignosed with selective mutism at age 3. He would only speak to me, my husband, and my youngest son and one friend. But he would not speak to us in front of others. He would not speak to my family either. The school made a HUGE issue of this. He was perfectly well behaved, made honor roll but the teachers hated the fact that he would not speak at all, the most he would do is whisper. I took him to a counselor at the school's insistence and the first thing she told me was not to let other people dictate what I expect from my child. From that point forward I let my anxiety go, didn't care what other people thought about my son and just lived our lives according to our terms. I can remember one time my son wanted me to tie his shoe and I was talking to a neighbor and he would just point and grunt at his foot. My neighbor had this shocked look on her face. I just tied his shoe and didn't even explain the situation. Whe! n I told my husband about it we laughed. I think this woman thought my son was mentally challenged but I didn't care, I let people think what they wanted. My son is now 19. He participated in sports and worked as a lifeguard all through high school. He just finished his freshman year in college, a math major. No, he's not the life of the party, but he is an intelligent, self-assured, normal, know-it-all teenager enjoying college life."
04/26/2010:
"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"
04/21/2010:
"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. "
03/17/2010:
"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"
01/15/2010:
"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."
10/27/2009:
"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?"
07/7/2009:
"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!"
04/30/2009:
"My kids has same symptom, any idea how to help?"
04/7/2009:
"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. "
03/23/2009:
"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."
12/3/2008:
"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 "
06/30/2008:
"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"
05/1/2008:
"'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?"
03/31/2008:
"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"
03/5/2008:
"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."
02/12/2008:
"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. "
01/23/2008:
"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"
01/22/2008:
"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."
11/14/2007:
"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. "
10/19/2007:
"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!"
10/12/2007:
"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."
10/10/2007:
"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: http://sm.pachai.net 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"
07/26/2007:
"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."
05/21/2007:
"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)...it can feel as if she needs to retreat to the 'pouch' for security. I'm at a loss at what to do. "
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