19th March 2010 at 00:00
The problem: I have a four-year-old girl in my reception class who refuses to speak at school. According to her mother she speaks freely at home. I believe she is really bright but won't do anything unless I address her personally. Is she a selective mute?

What you said

"My daughter didn't speak at all at her nursery when she was three, although she talked at home. I think she may have found the experience of nursery overwhelming and adopted an observing role rather than a participating one in order to cope."


"The only time I have seen this in a child this young was when autism was a factor. Your Senco or similar should be able to help."


"Selective mutes speak freely at home. I would think she'll need a formal assessment at some point."


"This girl sounds like a selective mute; the good news is the earlier they get help the better, so by identifying her in foundation stage you are in a good position."



It is possible that the child is a selective mute, but without being able to see the child on a one-to-one basis, I would not like to make any firm pronouncements. That said, it would certainly be worth asking the mother questions about how she behaves outside school and her general medical background.

Check first that the child doesn't have any hearing problems. Problems such as glue ear, for example, may make it difficult for her to follow your instructions.

Does she play with others? Is she demonstrating the social skills you would expect? Find out from the mother the point at which she stops talking. Is it at the school gates, in the playground, or once she reaches the school building?

At four, she is still very young. Since starting school, has the child suffered any separation anxiety? Ask her mother whether she has encountered any other problems with her daughter such as eating or sleeping. A crucial question is how she coped at nursery - has she been removed from a group of friends?

About 15 per cent of children are what we call "behaviourally inhibited", which means they respond to certain situations by drawing into themselves, and this could be the case here. These children need sensitive handling, but it doesn't mean they have any problems in later life. Are there shy people in her family? She may be modelling her behaviour on that of a close relative.

As well as talking to the mother, approach your school's or local authority's educational psychologist. They will be able to observe the child and assess her condition objectively.

Alice Sluckin is founder and chair of Smira, the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association



- Rule out any physical problems. Could there be something wrong with her hearing?

- Speak to her mother to get as much background as possible.

- Consult your educational psychologist or Senco.


- Rush to make a diagnosis of selective mutism. There may be other problems, such as separation anxiety.

- Embarrass the child in front of her peers; it may make the problem worse.

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