The perils of being silent in class

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Selectively mute children are often poorly understood, but one researcher found that their teachers can change that

The silent child in your classroom may be suffering from selective mutism. And, according to new research, it may be that a lack of the correct support from their teachers is causing them to struggle with their work and with making friends.

Selective mutism affects at least six to eight of every 1,000 children. Children with the condition will speak confidently in certain situations, such as at home, but remain entirely silent in others, including the classroom.

Selective mutism is different from traumatic mutism, which develops suddenly following an unexpected and upsetting event. It normally begins in the early years, when children start to encounter the world outside their home. Girls are usually more affected than boys and incidence is particularly high among ethnic-minority and bilingual populations.

Until relatively recently, the condition was referred to as "elective mutism". This was changed in 1994 to reflect the fact that children are not merely being stubborn and awkward. Many would like to be able to speak in different settings, but suffer from overwhelming anxiety when they try to do so.

Victoria Roe of Leicester University resolved that the best way to understand the condition would be to speak to those affected by it. She therefore interviewed 30 pupils aged between 10 and 18. She found that just over half were either first-born or only children. The vast majority were in mainstream schools. They attended most days, despite enduring anxieties. "I did not want to go to school, because it was scary," 10-year-old Adam said.

This was not helped by the teachers they encountered: almost half said that staff at their schools were unhelpful. "My tutor got me to shout his name as loud as I could and said, 'I'm not letting you go until you actually shout,'" 14-year-old Harriet said. "I felt humiliated and, when I tried to shout, my throat tightened."

"I hated school and felt that they never understood my problem," said 17-year-old Eleanor. "I was dumped in the bottom group with kids who constantly messed about and I was ignored."

Ten-year-old Anthea, meanwhile, reported that her swimming teacher spent four weeks making "rude comments" about her mutism. And 12-year-old Moira was constantly met with remarks such as "Cat got your tongue?" and "Why don't you speak?"

Most often, pupils used a combination of writing and hand gestures to communicate with teachers and classmates. Others whispered to teachers. But 80 per cent said the condition had nonetheless affected them at school, both socially and educationally. "Most of the girls in my class go shopping and to the cinema with each other," said 11-year-old Miriam. "Because I can't talk to them, I don't get asked to go. I don't get invited to parties, either."

"People think I'm a freak, because I don't speak much," added Harriet. Thirteen-year-old Simon, meanwhile, said that he found it difficult "when I know the answer, but cannot speak to answer the teacher". He also struggled to work well in a group, he said, even though he would like to.

Several pupils talked about their struggles to answer questions or demonstrate knowledge to their teachers. "I got a lower grade for my English GCSE than I would have if I could do the speaking part," 17-year-old Sarah said. "I couldn't ask for help when I got stuck on work, so I would do less work than I could have."

Thirteen-year-old Isabella, however, insisted that her selective mutism had worked to her advantage. "I work just as well as anyone else, if not better, because they are always chatting and not concentrating," she said.

The best strategy, pupils explained, is to avoid putting pressure on them. "Family treated me no different to my cousins and said I don't have to speak if I don't want to, which made me feel relaxed and enjoy my time with them," explained Anthea.

Twelve-year-old Dennis, meanwhile, said: "My family and friends ask questions with yesno answers, so I can nod or shake my head. I felt all right."

"At home, with close family and friends, I am loud, happy, sociable and chatty," Harriet said. "Outside, I am quiet, anxious and self-conscious."


Roe, V. Silent Voices: listening to young people with selective mutism.

A paper given to the 2011 British Educational Research Association conference.

Roe, V. The Selectively Mute Child in School (2003).


Selective Mutism Group

Selective Mutism Information and Research Association


What teachers should do

Ensure that the affected child does not feel under any pressure to speak.

Help the child to feel secure and accepted as he or she is.

Work hard to establish a good relationship with the child.

Accept any non-verbal responses as valid.

Link the selectively mute child with a small group of peers and a key adult.

Encourage social interaction and physical movement through games.

Let the child know that other children, and even adults, feel scared of speaking sometimes.

Work with parents to create a bridge between home and school.

Seek help from outside agencies and support groups.

What not not do

Feel threatened or frustrated at being unable to elicit a verbal response from the child.

Model verbal responses - over-compensating by, for example, answering the register for the child.

Deny the problem in the hope that it will eventually clear up by itself.

Bribe, threaten, flatter, cajole or otherwise pressurise the child into speaking.

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