Resource Articles by Dr. Hess

Tips to Support your Child with Selective Mutism Transition Back to School

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By Esther B. Hess, Ph.D.

Selective Mutism is a psychiatric disorder that affects 7 out of every 1,000 children (making it almost as common as autism) yet; it is seldom dealt with within the confines of a psychotherapist’s office. It is an extreme form of social anxiety disorder where a child cannot speak in select settings, most typically at school, even though they can (usually) speak normally at home. There is little understanding and subsequently little empathy for these children who often are frozen with fear as they try to confront specific social settings. It is important to understand that although environmental stresses play an important role in anxiety and other mood disorders, most children with Selective Mutism have a hereditary predisposition to anxiety disorders. Fifteen years ago, these children were known as elective mutes, and their silence was seen as willful and manipulative. Children suffering from Selective Mutism are not choosing to be silent nor refusing to speak, nor are they being oppositional. They are literally so anxious they have developed dysfunctional coping skills to combat anxiety that most often includes avoiding social interactions and thus making the transition back into school often quite difficult.

In response to the challenges of the school, here are a variety of strategies that can be incorporated to assure a safe and secure entrance into the new academic year.

  1. Contact the principal of your child’s school and have this administrator arrange for your child to both meet her teacher a couple of days before school begins and to have an opportunity to orient herself to her new classroom.
  2. Have your child make a picture or bring a sticker to this first meeting so that the teacher can incorporate the artwork into her classroom set up and then subsequently on the first day of school, acknowledge your child's contribution, thus from the very beginning of the semester, elevating his/her status to peers.
  3. Have the child sit close to the teacher to assure full comprehension of the lesson plan and if talking is difficult, allow your child to be the ‘teacher’s helper’ by assisting him/her to pick out a peer to be called on. Again, this provides another strategy for your child to hold a significant place in her personal community.
  4. Find out who your child likes to play with at school and encourage play dates up to three times a week to help learn, through the natural system of play, how to navigate socially. These skills learned in the relatively stress free home environment are typically generalized back into the classroom.
  5. If you feel that these issues need to be addressed more formally, then you can go to your child's school and ask to have your child assessed through an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 plan. These assessments are typically done through your local public school and may include a psychological, speech and health examination. If services (for example a social skills group in school) are determined to be warranted, the services will generally only be delivered if your child is receiving their education through the public school system.
  6. Esther B. Hess, Ph.D. a developmental psychologist, sits on the board of directors of the Selective Mutism Group and is also the executive director of Center for the Developing Mind, a multidisciplinary treatment facility in West Los Angeles, CA. The Center specializes in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents with regulatory disorders like selective mutism. For more information regarding services please visit the Center's web site at www.centerforthedevelopingmind.com.