Sunday, February 23, 2014

More Literacy Tips for the Child with Selective Mutism

If you are a parent or a teacher of a child with Selective Mutism, you know all too well about the challenges these students face in the classroom. Last time, I offered tips for reading instruction for the child who cannot speak out loud.  Today, I want to share about the importance of getting parents involved in the learning process, both at school and at home.



First, it must be stated that many children with S.M. have average to above average intelligence.  From my research and experience, these children also have a natural affinity for music and the arts.  Moreover, because they do not speak or have limited speaking ability, they usually compensate by honing their auditory skills in a classroom environment.  While this is usually a good thing, it also means that S.M. children have limited to no opportunities for speaking in school.  This can, of course, have negative effects on learning, especially in regards to literacy.  We know as professionals that learning is a social, interactive process.  Brain research teaches us that talking about our learning helps to learn efficiently, helps our memory, and exposes us to new and varied ideas.  

The suggestions that I have to share with you are good, solid recommendations for all parents to use at home.  For the child with S.M. any talking or discussing the parents can encourage at home will assist them with processing and solidifying their thinking and learning.
1.  Send home books for students to read aloud to their parents, if you do not already do so.  Fluency issues can arise even with strong readers because they do not have an opportunity to read aloud (to a friend, to the teacher) at school.  My own son who reads above grade level reads too fast and doesn't stop to fix mistakes.  Except for at home, he never reads out loud.  He is still at the developmental age where he needs to read softly, whisper read, and read out loud occasionally to decode and to think about his reading.

2. Reading aloud also helps children to work on decoding strategies such as getting their mouth ready for the first sound, flipping the vowel sound, and stretching out a word when encoding during writing.  It would be helpful to offer specific strategies for students to work on at home and provide parents helpful hints. Examples are finding and saying the little word in the big word, reading sentences the child has written, to name a few.

3.  In addition, students can work on retelling a book to their parent or an older sibling. Encourage the child to discuss plot elements, connections, questions they have during reading, and other comprehension strategies.

4.  Keep parents informed on what phonics skills you are covering in class.  Throughout the week, parents can have their children read words out loud for the skill or look for words with the target phonics skill as they are reading each night.

5.  Encourage parents to have their child read out loud any writing that students bring home.  For example, when my son was in school, he usually brought home a "Squiggle" writing and a free write each week.  I would always have him read his writing to me as we were going through his take-home folder.

6.  Invite parents into the classroom to volunteer, if their schedule permits.  Not only will mom or dad's presence in the classroom provide a feeling of security for the child, but it will also provide an opportunity for the parent to work with the child.

In short, students need an opportunity to read aloud, think aloud, and process their thinking out loud at home, in the place where they feel the safest and most comfortable.  I would urge teachers to caution parents not to "drill" and barrage their child with too many questions and requests to read out loud.  Just five minutes of reading out loud for a young primary student (grades kindergarten-first grades) should be a good start.  Even having a parent read aloud and then asking questions can prompt a natural discussion about the story that gives the child practice discussing their comprehension and thinking.

For my child, he did not like to talk about his day immediately after getting home in the afternoon.  He needed down time, time to run around outside, talk with his older brother, or just relax by himself playing with Legos, or yes, even a video game. If he was in a particularly agitated mood, frustrated, or upset, I did all I could to help him verbalize how and what he was feeling and how he could cope both at school and at home.  Together, we read books about various emotions, I helped him with relaxation with breathing and visualization, and encouraged him to write and draw in a journal.  Sometimes he would write me letters and other times, I would find him writing in his journal before bed.  As for the books, the Mr. Men series is a big hit in our house, such as the title Mr. Worry.  Click the picture below to see the listing on Amazon.  These are all suggestions that you can share with parents.

  It is very important that children with S.M. have opportunities to express their emotions at the end of the day that they have bottled up inside.  Many children with S.M. will not smile, laugh, cry, or shed a single tear (even when hurt) during the school day, let alone express feelings of frustration, anger, or disappointment.

Many researchers and doctors that study and treat children with Selective Mutism, emphasize that any treatment plan should use a team approach.  Teachers, counselors, the pediatrician, faculty and staff, and parents and other family members must work together to support and encourage the child who struggles to be heard.

Credits:  KG Fonts, My Cute Graphics, and Ashley Hughes

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Literacy Tips for Teaching the Child With Selective Mutism: Part one

Last week, I shared an overview of suggestions for working with the student that has been diagnosed with Selective Mutism.  You can read that article here.

Today, I want to share specific ideas for literacy instruction with the child that suffers from Selective Mutism.  Whether you use centers, Daily 5, a Workshop model, Guided Reading, or an anthology, the child with S.M. offers unique challenges in the classroom because they are unable to speak out loud.  For some children, they may not gesture, point, nod their head, whisper, laugh, or smile.  Others may have progressed to whispering or even talk out loud to a peer or to the teacher.  Knowing where the child is with their progress is critical to planning accommodations. 

 Again, I emphasize that the teacher's first and most important job is to make the child feel as comfortable as possible without adding the pressure to speak.  However, I would not ignore the student, but work with the parents and the child to determine if the child would feel comfortable being asked a question in a small group or whole group setting.  For many children with S.M., they are fearful of being singled out and drawing attention to themselves.  My own child has progressed to where he will raise his hand and whisper a response or an answer. 

1Once you know the goals for the child, you can plan and accommodate literacy instruction accordingly.  Most students with S.M. will have an action plan created by the treating psychologist or therapist or the child will have an I.E.P.  With my son, his plan included me encouraging him to whisper in the parking lot at school, visiting the school on weekends to practice whispering in the parking lot, and visiting his classroom after school when no one was present.  Of course, we worked this out with the classroom teacher for a time that was convenient for her. 

 Just a note:  While in the classroom, my son and I played, completed a puzzle, read, or reviewed work he had completed. I put no pressure or expectation on him to speak.  I did not say, "I want you to whisper to me in the classroom".  I would talk to him and ask him questions, but did not push the issue.  My objective was to help him change his perception that the classroom is a scary place and replace it with feelings of comfort, fun, and happiness.  What I have learned over the years is that the less you expect your student or child to talk the more they will surprise you!

The bottom line was that he was not expected to talk in the classroom, but was expected to nod his head in response to questions or to gesture to the teacher.

2.  If you use a Daily 5 framework or something, similar, students will thrive during the independent work times.  Read to self and listen to reading will most likely be their favorites!  Capitalize on their interests by extending time they have to work in this manner.  For example, if the child is not ready for read with a partner or buddy reading, have them listen to reading or read to themselves.  Or, if they feel comfortable, accommodate by having the child with S.M. listen and follow along in the text while the other student is reading. 

3.  Small Group or Guided Reading time may create more anxiety for the child, as they cannot "hide" like they can during whole class instruction.  Because there is a small number of students, there are more eyes on the child, and the expectation is that all will talk, small group instruction time can make them feel uncomfortable.  On the other hand, some, prefer working in a small group as opposed to whole class because there are fewer students.  In any case, talk to the child before you start small group instruction for the first time and let them know that you do not expect them to talk out loud but you do expect them to pay attention, read, complete work, and nod their head, point, or whisper (based on their speaking goals).  If you have students "whisper read", you may want to have them complete this with you by themselves or at home. 

4.  Working individually with the student when no other students are present can be a good place to start with literacy instruction.  Fostering a trusting relationship with the student is paramount before any progress can be made.  Again, many children with S.M. are afraid to speak, whisper, or even gesture in front of their peers.  If you can carve out a time to work with the child in a 1-1 manner after school or during intervention time, you can work on specific literacy skills.  For example, you can encourage whisper reading, administer a reading assessment, or work on phonics.  Many children with S.M. will whisper to their teacher before their peers.  

For the student who hasn't progressed to whispering, you can use this time to work on skills such as retelling use picture cards where the child does not have to speak. Using games is not only fun and a great stress relief, but also can be used to work on needed skills. In doing so, you are also building a relationship with the child where they feel safe, secure, and hopefully will learn to view the classroom as a fun place instead of one that they associate with feelings of worry and fear.

In addition, you will want to involve the parent(s) as much as possible inside and outside of the classroom.  And that is where I will pick up next time.

In the meantime, I have two free resources you can use in the classroom.  The first is a set of communication cards I developed for my son. If the child has to use the restroom or is finished with their seat work, I have a card that they can place on their desk to communicate with you nonverbally.  You can download those here

Next, I have a small set of four reward cards you can give students for their "brave talking".  Simply hand the card to the child or place in their take home folder to let them know you are proud of them.  Many children with S.M. do not liked to be praised in public and some may even shut down and regress if too much attention (either positive or negative) is given to them.  You can download those cards here.

Please share any questions or suggestions that you have in working with children who have Selective Mutism. Together, we can help these children to break their silence and to flourish.

Graphics courtesy of: Ashley Hughes, My Cute Graphics, and KG Fonts

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Literacy Instruction and The Selective Mutism Student

 boy talking

If you have been around my blog for awhile, you know that I have a passion not only for promoting literacy, but for bringing awareness to Selective Mutism, a childhood anxiety disorder.  The child with S.M. is not able to speak in certain social situations, usually at school or school-like environments (Sunday School, Scouts, sports teams, music lessons) because of intense anxiety. My own child was diagnosed three and half years ago at the age of three.  Since that time he has progressed to whispering in a school environment.  A few weeks ago, I withdrew him from his public school to bring him home to learn since his extreme anxiety was causing him much distress at school and at home.

His performance in school has always been a concern of mine since he was in a three year old preschool class.  However, despite his silence, he has done remarkably well and is on or above grade level in most subjects.  What has been a bit of a challenge is assessing him.  In fact, this is a challenge with any S.M. child that will not talk in school.   How do you assess a child's strengths and weaknesses?  How do you measure growth?  How do you administer a Running Record?  How do you assess phonemic awareness, segmentation, and comprehension with a child who will not talk? What unique challenges does a child with Selective Mutism have when it comes to learning to read and write?

 In this two-part article, I will share from my experiences and what the research says in the hopes of helping you teach your S.M. child or student.


Research Says...
Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum, a premiere expert and researcher in the field of Selective Mutism and President and Director of the SMart Center, suggests than an experienced evaluator assess the student with Selective Mutism.  This is especially critical when any type of cognitive testing is administered.  Shipon-Blum suggests that the evaluator build rapport first with the child before beginning testing.  I can speak of how important this is first hand. 

 I have had doctors, therapists, and counselors who have spent extensive time making my child feel comfortable without the expectation that they will speak. Eventually, my child did whisper or talk out loud to them.  The professionals that jumped right into testing or instruction without taking time to do this did not have the same results.  For many with S.M., first impressions are everything.  If the professional expects, demands, bribes, or places any type of pressure on the child to speak during the initial meeting, the child may associate the professional with anxious and fearful thoughts and may never speak.

One common thread in the research is that it is not the teacher's job to make the child speak.  In fact, it is not anyone's job.  Any person that comes in contact or that works with the child must have as first priority to make the child feel comfortable and to reduce their stress and anxiety levels.

Tips for Literacy Instruction

It wasn't until I began homeschooling my child that I realized how much his inability to speak at school had affected his literacy skills.  Although he is reading above grade level, his writing skills, specifically his spelling, is below grade level.  In a school setting, he has relied on his visual and auditory skills to learn and to master content.  He was able to memorize easily, and so he did well on the weekly spelling tests.  However, there was little to no transfer of knowledge in his writing.  When decoding and encoding words, he often struggles with unfamiliar words which makes me suspicious that he has memorized and is able to recognize many words, but has little knowledge of phonics and spelling rules and patterns.

 boy book happy

And then it hit me.  Besides the reading he does at home, this child has never read out loud, never sounded out a word, never stretched a word to hear the sounds when writing, and at most has only ever whispered when engaged in any verbal activity.  Therefore, he has very limited practice with oral reading.  And comprehension?  He is not used to thinking out loud, has never participated in group discussions about his reading, and rarely asked questions in class. And when he did, it was in a whisper.

Like assessments, effective literacy instruction will be effective and successful when parents are involved in the process.  Having parents involved offers security and eases the child's anxiety.  From there, the research suggests that the teacher work on building a trusting relationship with the child by working with them individually as much as possible.  This means working with the child in small groups in the classroom and working with the child when the other students are not present.  What this means is that the teacher works with the child alone when no other students are present.  This may be before school, after school, during recess (many S.M. kids feel very uncomfortable during unstructured times such as recess because they often are alone and do not know to interact with other children), or in lieu of a special.  

By working with the child in such a manner, the teacher can first develop a  relationship with the student.  Once the child feels comfortable, baby steps can be taken to encourage whispering. loud whispering, and uttering a few words out loud.  It is in this setting that an assessment can be given instead of in a classroom with other students present.  Many times, the S.M. student is terrified to speak in front of his/her peers.  A Running Record, IRI, benchmark, or screening test can be given one-on-one. For some students, it may be beneficial for the parent or parents to be present as well.  Having Mom or Dad in the room eases the anxiety and the fears that the child may have.  Some evaluators even assess in the child's home where they feel the most comfortable.  I realize that this is not feasible for many teachers, but inviting the parent or parents into the classroom is a good plan.  From there, the teacher and parents can work together to slowly fade the parental presence.

So, to summarize, this is what often works for the student with Selective Mutism:

1.  One person in the school setting (teacher, guidance counselor, special education teacher, SLP, etc.) should strive to develop a close and trusting relationship with the student. Work with the child in a one-to-one setting as much as possible.

2.  Remember that the goal is not to make the child speak, but to reduce his/her anxiety and make them feel comfortable. During the initial meeting play games, encourage gesturing such as pointing and nodding of the head, or use picture cards.  Keep it light, fun, and do not draw attention to their silence.  If the child is extremely anxious, this may take several sessions.  Once the child is visibly comfortable the child will most likely begin to gesture, smile, whisper, or talk out loud (albeit, this can take years to occur).  Then, you begin your work of assessing or instructing.

3.  Involve parents as much as possible.  Think outside the box and be as flexible as possible.  Have a parent be present after school when you must administer the required benchmark or Running Record.  If you feel comfortable doing so and if your administration will permit, visit the child's home and perhaps even assess the child in this setting.

4.  Selective Mutism is part of the DSM-5, within the Anxiety Disorders category.  Once diagnosed, students can get an IEP for classroom and testing accommodations.

In the second part of this series, I will share specific tips for literacy instruction.

Together, can we work to help these little learners who suffer in silence.

Border Accents by Ashley Hughes

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reach the Heart Before You Start

This past week, I know that my first grade son taught me more than I taught him.  And that is ok.  Because if this whole new homeschool adventure is to be even minimally successful, then I have to know exactly where my child is academically and emotionally.  You would think that I would know my child inside and out.  Since he was two years old, I knew that he had an affinity for music and art and that he was a visual learner.  This week he taught me that he is also a spatial and kinesthetic learner.  His learning style is diverse and complex, which may be augmented by his anxiety and his moodiness.  He taught me that less is more, something I professed to already know, but wasn't really applying to our homeschool lessons.  He taught me that Guided Reading and math can be completed on the couch in pajamas just as effectively as sitting at a desk.

The child that I have observed in a classroom environment on many occasions who was attentive, focused, and could sustain his attention to a task for long periods of time is NOT who he really is.  Yes, he is very compliant, but to optimize his learning, I have to change things up a bit... I have to give him choices... I have to learn to integrate music and art into the content areas as much as possible. I have to allow him to take frequent wiggle breaks, allow him to dance around the kitchen while brainstorming a writing topic or reciting math facts, and allow him to lie on the floor while doing a science lesson.  Seat work is not going to cut it- at least not here at home.

 But the most important lesson he taught me this week is this: that I cannot assume that just because he is my son, it doesn't mean that I don't have to work really hard to foster and nurture a learning relationship with him. As we both are adjusting to me being both mom and teacher, I am realizing that I have to start with his heart before I can be effective as his teacher.  This is just like in any other classroom where the teacher must establish a trusting relationship with the students and create a classroom community of respect, caring, and commitment.  And just like in the classroom, my primary goal is to instill a love of learning, of curiosity, of creativity, of risk-taking, and that learning is enjoyable.

Even though this week was marked with some tears, resistance, and grumpiness, he worked very hard, asked some very good questions, and demonstrated that he enjoys and needs to think out loud as he is working and processing.

Because I used the word "noun", and he asked,"What's that?", we reviewed nouns and verbs by sorting word cards.  I thought it very clever that he placed the words "fly" and "love" in the middle of the two sorting mats since he said both words were "things" and "things that you do". I'm pretty sure that he was making a connection to the Venn diagram we had worked with last week.  See the picture below~

Activity is from my If You'll Be My Valentine by Cynthia Rylant packet

And the smile on his face- priceless!

From here, we watched a few noun and verb videos on youtube.  I started with the noun videos that Shuna,from Pocket Full of Kinders, had suggested last year. See here for her fabulous guest post she wrote last February.  Then he asked to do a Google search for a verb video, and this is what he found:

It's a verb rap that we both loved!

We concluded out polar bear study by making this craftivity from
Lauryn Kirk Balogh.  Since he learned to write a cinquain poem last week, he wrote one for polar bears this week.

Turning seven years old was the highlight of his week!

As I prepare my lesson plans for next week, I will start with his heart first.♥

Have a great weekend!  Enjoy!

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