I taught a selectively mute pupil – and he taught me

Teaching a pupil with selective mutism was often frustrating, says Vicky Heslop. But compassion inevitably triumphed

Vicky Heslop

Young boy, with his hand clasped over his mouth

In my Year 6 class, I had the experience of teaching a child who was selectively mute. I’ll call him Daniel. 

Talking to adults was a massive challenge for Daniel. He would speak to other children, but when it came to grown-ups he might say, “Yes”, “No” or “Thank you”, but a face-to-face conversation was too much

Working with Daniel was a challenge, but one that has enabled me to grow as a teacher and understand more about myself, too. 

When Daniel entered my class, I very quickly felt a huge amount of responsibility for him. That is one of the things that marks the experience of teaching a pupil with selective mutism: you feel very responsible. You're very aware that there's a reason behind the mutism, and it feels like any time you encourage the child to speak, you are putting so much pressure on them. At the same time, you want to encourage them to develop skills that they're going to need in the outside world. 

It can also be incredibly frustrating. As teachers, we rely so much on verbal feedback. When I couldn’t get that from Daniel, frustration often morphed into feelings of guilt, and then back again: “Am I doing something wrong? Why can’t I fix this? I’m losing patience.” 

Selective mutism: Not everybody in the world is the same

I had to keep in mind how difficult it was for Daniel. You can't imagine that anyone would willingly choose to be unable to speak. Even though working with him could be frustrating, compassion trumped impatience

Throughout the year, I did try other communication techniques, playing to his strengths. For example, Daniel was a very good writer. We gave him a dedicated book where he would write his thoughts or questions, but he often wasn't willing to do that, either. 

So if he had misunderstood something, it was very difficult to get a sense of this directly from him. Instead, he would talk through his friends, who would ask questions on his behalf. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a start. In fact, as the year progressed he would often talk too much to his friends. I’d want to tell him to quieten down, but also didn’t want to stop him in his stride. 

I think Daniel’s experience in the class was also really good for the other children. They would show quite a lot of compassionate understanding for him. It gave them a good understanding that not everybody in the world is the same – sometimes some people just need a bit more help, and that's OK. 

Understanding his inner world

However, beyond tackling the tasks at hand, it was still a huge challenge for me to understand Daniel’s inner world, his interests and passions. That changed, however, when we took part in an online experience called “I’m an Engineer, Get Me Out of Here”, which puts classes in touch with engineers and scientists

Using a webchat, pupils were able to quiz experts on anything they like, from how they engineer space stations to their favourite pizza toppings. From the moment we started our first webchat with a space engineer, Daniel was more engaged than I’d ever seen him. Usually, in a one-to-one situation with an adult, he was very reluctant to communicate, even in writing. But, because of the anonymous nature of the webchat, he completely opened up. 

He was asking questions about constellations and space supernovas: advanced terms I had no idea he knew. In fact, I’d had no idea that he had such a passion for space. It was really eye-opening for me because I saw a whole level of interest and understanding in him that I was totally unaware of. He was able to ask lots of really relevant questions and to feel confident having a real conversation with an adult. 

It's not personal

As the year went on, I did see him become more confident in other ways, too. He was more playful, loud and boisterous with his friends – occasionally, he was even naughty. He would give you a smile or a laugh from time to time. He started letting me in a little bit. Although Daniel still remained largely mute around adults, he did gradually begin to open up. 

For me, one of the most important things that I learned through this experience was that it's not personal. It's very easy to make it about you, but in fact, it never is. Once you accept that, it takes the pressure off and de-escalates the whole dynamic. 

Teachers want to get everything right, and when you feel like you can't help, it's really hard not to take that personally. Actually, the child just isn’t ready. But it's not easy to be patient with someone else if you’re not being patient with yourself. 

Selective mutism is often seen as a control issue: the child’s choice not to speak is a way of controlling a situation that makes them anxious. But it teaches the adults involved about control, too. As a teacher, you cannot have control over a child’s choice to speak. 

You can't control what children have been through before they come into the classroom, and what they are going home to. Instead, you can only really control how you respond to them. Once you come to terms with this fact, it becomes much easier to focus on compassion, patience and understanding – not just for the child, but also for yourself. 

Vicky Heslop is a teacher at Westbury Junior School, in Wiltshire. I’m an Engineer, Get me Out of Here is available on Neon, a new digital platform from EngineeringUK, which gives teachers access to online and offline engineering outreach activities 

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