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.
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.
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