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.
1 . Once 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