Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Selective Mutism

As a 2-year-old, Oscar would toddle into the classroom ahead of his mom, stop in his tracks when he saw me, jaw-dropped, utter the words, "Teacher Tom," in a hoarse whisper, then stand there for a good minute just staring at me as if stunned. He would then not say a word to me or anyone else for the rest of the day.

Sammy would keep an eye on me at all times, tracking my movements from the corner of her eye, and if I got too close would flee to another part of the room. I don't think I was even in range to have heard her voice for 5 months, even if she had tried to speak.

Emi wouldn't make eye contact with me, twisting her body into all kinds of shapes to avoid it, going so far as to soundlessly crawl under the table when my proximity was unavoidable.

These are just 3 of dozens of examples I could have shared of children who were simply overwhelmed, it seems, by me. Teachers are very powerful people in a child's life. It's not surprising that we would strike some of them mute. In every case, their parents let me know, often apologetically, that their child babbled away at home, often about me or the songs we sang or the toys with which we played. What I didn't always know to say back then, but what I know to say now, is, "They don't have to talk to me if they don't want to."

When I first started teaching, I often made the mistake of approaching these silent children with the idea of coaxing them out of their shell. And if I didn't do it, their parents would, saying things like, "Tell Teacher Tom what you wanted to tell him," or "What's got into you?" It didn't take long, however, for me to realize that this approach, in every case, was only making matters worse. 

It didn't help that at some level, their mothers seemed embarrassed, so that's where I've learned to start, assuring them that it doesn't hurt my feelings that their child won't speak with me. I tell them the story of Aidan or other children who didn't speak. I let them know that I am confident that their child will start talking to me on her own schedule. I then tell them that the best way they can help me is to just keep me informed of her current enthusiasms at home or if anything particularly exciting is going on, like seeing a fire truck at the neighbor's house or a new toy or a favorite musical.

The approach I take to these kids is to not approach them, but to rather sort of sidle up to them in the course of events, while they're engaged in something else, often just playing along with them without questions or words, engaging perhaps with other children or adults in the area, dropping in references to things or events that I now know interest them at home. I can usually at first feel their tension at my elbow, their anticipation that they will be asked to somehow perform for me. That's why I keep these sidling moments brief at first, breaking them off on my own accord, maybe with a smile in their direction.

I don't know if this is the psychologically sound approach or not, but to me it feels as if I'm sort of conditioning them to my presence, giving them small doses of the stress of being near me, gradually increasing them over time. My hope is that by sprinkling my banter with references to familiar or exciting things from home (not peppering them with questions, not expecting anything from them) I'm making myself seem familiar, as if I'm a part of their extended family, an intimate.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that since we're a 3-year program we can take these things as slowly as they need to be. Since we're a cooperative, the room is full of parents, including those of these silent children, which makes us less an alien place. I believe that this is the reason that these silent children are all talking in our school by the time they're 4.

I don't know if I'm talking about "selective mutism" here or not, a psychological condition that is thought to be found in somewhere between 1-in-100 and 1-in-150 children, making it more common that autism and just as common as childhood depression. Statistically, some of these kids would have had to have filled the bill. I think, perhaps without knowing how, we're doing something right, catching this condition perhaps before it can become full-blown.

Many treatments, especially in the US, involve the prescription of things like Prozac. You only need that if you're in a hurry.

My friend Donna from Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning collected some links should you be interested in learning more about selective mutism.

For more links, head on over to their Facebook page.

(And you'll notice that in this post, I didn't once mention the emotion "shyness.")

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Becky said...

Interesting posts on shy and "selective mutism." I appreciate a teacher's perspective. My daughter is being raised bilingual and at 2 1/2 her communication skills aren't as strong as her cousins' or neighbors'. I know that she'll surpass them all in due time. ;) Until then I'm nervous for her interacting with classmates and teacher (perhaps aids, too). Besides her being the youngest and having a weak English vocabulary, she is also not used to being in bigger groups. What I have learned from reading the last two posts is: don't worry. I'm glad that I found a teacher that isn't worried either after I explained our situation to her.

Girl From the Ville said...

It surprises me a little that we are concerned about children who do not communicate straight away. I think we should be celebrating it because it is their self protective behaviours at work. Teaching these kids that they have to talk despite their instincts being cautious, is teaching them to ignore those instincts. Kids that are more out there will display those instincts in different ways, but for these kids, this is their instincts at work.

Adults should have to earn kids' trust. I think it is healthy and good for their self protective behaviours.

I think all too often we cut across kids' natural built instincts to make them fit in with a social norm and it is dangerous. We should be respecting their self protective behaviours and working with them, not teaching them to ignore those feelings just so they look like they fit in.

Heather Hollis said...

As an adult who has struggled with selective mutism all my life I can say that I think your approach to those quiet ones sounds great! This wasn't something I had even heard of when I was growing up but my teachers always wrote home to my mom that there must be something wrong with me because I was smart but did not talk. It would take enormous effort to talk to other kids let alone adults!

Anonymous said...

I probably had this as a child. I didn't do preschool, but in Kindergarten I refused to talk to anyone. I can remember the teacher asking me questions and I just couldn't open my mouth to speak. The first time I talked was on my birthday to tell the teacher I was turning 5. The only other time I talked was when we put on plays with puppets and I could hid behind the screen. That was my fondest memory for years. I loved doing those plays! Probably because it was the only time I felt safe to talk.