Ready to talk

How would you deal with a selective mute child? Would you accept it as a phase or would you try to find a way around the problem?
3rd October 2008, 1:00am
Alyson Hall


Ready to talk

I became a long-term supply cover teacher for a mixed Year 5 and 6 class after the Christmas holidays until the end of that academic year. Steven(i), a Year 6 pupil, had been a selective mute since joining the school part way through his reception year.

He was a selective in as much as he would talk out of the school grounds, but once he stepped through the school gates, he would not speak. This included lunch and playtimes.

The first thing I did was make inquiries among other staff. I found out that in the reception year he had received visits from a speech therapist and education psychologist who concluded that, due to the fact that he did, and would, talk away from the school, this was not a problem.

Having been told this, subsequent class teachers had accepted the situation. But I felt strongly that this should not be the case. As far as I was concerned, Steven was missing out on a full education. It seemed unbelievable to me that staff had accepted this as normal behaviour that should just go unchallenged. Was this a case of just accepting what the so-called, "experts" had recommended? My main belief in teaching is about arming the children with self-confidence, self-belief and an ideal that they are capable of whatever they put their minds to. Steven needed help and I saw it as my goal to make sure I gave it to him.

But I knew that, after nearly seven years in the school, Steven was not just going to start talking straight away. I was also aware of my own limitations, as I was covering someone who was on leave with stress, and my contract was only ever really for a few weeks at a time.

I liked to start the day with an individual good morning with the register. When it came to "Good morning, Steven", I was met with seemingly the entire class shouting out that Steven didn't speak. My response was to tell everyone that I knew Steven chose not to speak, but it was only good manners for him to acknowledge I had spoken to him, and that I would like it if Steven would acknowledge me with a wave, a smile or, at the very least, eye contact. I am a big believer in eye contact and this twice- daily acknowledgement of me from Steven was the first positive step in the road to his talking at school.

Once we were confidently smiling at each other, I decided to try a new tack. I was already doing a weekly circle time session where Steven always chose to pass on having his say. The school did not do any formal reading assessment other than Sats. I thought it was important to test a child's reading age, so I had all the class read to me individually from the Salford Sentence Reading Test.

As they stood at my desk reading, it was no accident that Steven's desk was the closest to mine. About three-quarters of the way through the class, I had Steven come up to my desk so that I could explain what was happening.

I told him that I knew he could read, because he completed his work, but it was important to me to know how well everyone in the class could read. I asked did he understand that, to which his response was a nod. I told him I would like to know exactly how well he could read, and would he read to me. He shook his head. Not to be deterred, I suggested we could go in a quiet room at lunchtime where no one would hear him. I was blown away when he nodded in agreement. Feeling jubilant I suggested that day, another headshake. The next day then? Yes, a nod.

Not believing that we had come quite so far, I was fully expecting Steven to be absent the next day, or at the very least, change his mind. He arrived for school and did not back out of our agreement. We went to the library and as I pointed at the sentences Steven started reading. His voice was croaky, my eyes filled up, I told him: "Well done" and he went for lunch.

I was in an emotional state. This boy had never spoken in school before and he had just read to me. I went straight into the head's office, who was as jubilant as me and gave me a big hug.

Our special needs co-ordinator was less excited. "Sometimes they open up to new people," she said. Yet in a few short weeks I had achieved something that she hadn't managed in almost seven years. Her jealous negativity would not spoil my pride.

From then on, Steven's confidence in his ability to talk in school developed at an amazing pace. During small booster group sessions I would end with quickfire questions. For example, if we were doing fractions I would say: "What is a quarter of 60?" At first Steven was the last to answer after everyone else had gone out to play. It did not take him long to realise that if he answered first, his playtime could be up to two minutes longer. And so he started to speak in front of classmates. He also started to say "good morning" to me when I did the register, and then once during circle time he had something to say. He went red at the time, but the rest of the class simultaneously applauded. He had spoken, in front of his entire class, with a few months to spare before moving on to secondary school.

At our leavers' assembly, I was determined that all 45 Year 6s would participate and speak. I had a great sense of pride when I watched the faces of the teachers who had taught Steven in those preceding years.

Steven's confidence grew so much that by the end of term, I had to tell him to stop talking quite so much in class. His parents never came to any parents' evenings, but once I saw his mother out shopping and told her how proud I was of Steven talking. Her response was that she always knew he would talk before he went to "big school".

Maybe Steven was going to start talking anyway, who knows? In all of my 16 years of being a teacher this has been one of my proudest achievements

Steven's name has been changed.

Tips for teachers

- If a child is not speaking after the first "settling in" month, then the school's special needs co-ordinator should be consulted and expert advice sought.

- Let the child know that you accept them and non-verbal forms of communication.

- Experiment with picture cards or communication charts if the pupil is not able to speak.

- Work with parents to bridge the divide between the speaking home and the non-speaking school. This may involve visiting the pupil's home or the parents working with the child at school.

- Allow the pupil to talk to the teacher via their friends, so they get used to using their voice in class without anxiety.

- Request an assessment and intervention from a speech therapist or educational psychologist early. If none is available, the small steps programme from SMIRA, the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association, can be conducted by teachers.

Something to talk about

An estimated seven in 1,000 children suffer from selective mutism, although it could be as high as one in 100.

- Selective mutism usually appears when children start school.

- It is a crippling phobia that prevents people from initiating speech to certain people in given environments.

- Bilingual pupils are more prone to selective mutism, meaning areas with high immigration, or mobile populations, are most affected.

- The causes of selective mutism are still not clear, but there is increasing evidence of a genetic link. Possible environmental causes include children starting nursery or pre-school at younger ages, and passive pastimes such as TV and video games.

- Most children outgrow selective mutism, but it follows some into adulthood.

- Early intervention and assessment, usually within school, is key. Educational psychologists or speech therapists may employ behavioural therapy or the "small steps" programme.

Source: SMIRA is running a selective mutism awareness week from October 5. Visit If you would like to contact Alyson Hall, email

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