Some Helpful Tips for Working with Shy Kids and Selective Mutism Is your child shy at school? Many children, especially young ones, are resistant to talking at school or in certain social situations. In preschool classrooms, such as my daughter's, you typically see a few children who are shy in class. Their parents report that they talk all the time at home, but don't talk at school with their teachers or peers. Often, a child will "warm up" as the year progresses, especially when in a comfortable and nurturing setting. There are certain strategies that parents and teachers should know, however, when working with children who appear uncomfortable and shy in the school setting or during play activities with friends.
A child who remains silent in school and some social settings for a period of time may be given a diagnosis of selective mutism. Treatment requires a comprehensive approach of education of parents and school staff, a team approach to therapy (parents and teachers are involved in therapy), ceasing pressure on the child to talk, normalizing the child in social settings, play therapy within the school setting. (For more information on selective mutism, and/or a referral to a therapist in your area, check out www.asha.org) Regardless of how long your child has remained quiet at school, there are some helpful tips to know to encourage your child to grow more comfortable in social situations.
To begin with, we want our long-term goals for the child to be:
1) be comfortable at and enjoy school
2) communicate with teacher
3) communicate with peers
As parents and teachers, we must pull away any pressure that the child must talk. We can give them opportunities to raise their hand, point, and physically participate (hand out papers, place calendar markers, etc.) without requiring that they respond verbally. We want to make sure they are involved socially with other children. During circle time, they need to sit with the other children. During recess, they can be pulled into a ball game. At times, the child may need to be physically assisted to participate, but it is important they are not socially isolated (sitting by themselves, sitting at the back of the classroom, etc.) At no time should we comment about whether or not they are talking. As students become more involved physically and socially, they will often begin to verbalize and communicate just as they are at home.
As parents and teachers, we should not describe the child as "shy" or use words like "don't be afraid" or "it's ok to talk". Rather, we want the focus pulled away from whether or not they talk in class or answer their peers or adults verbally. First and foremost, we want them to feel comfortable in whatever setting they are in, and decreasing the verbal pressure is often one way to achieve that.
If your child won't talk in certain situations, such as at the grocery store, go ahead and answer for them. For example, if the clerk asks "what's your name?" and you know your child won't answer, go ahead and say their name without making a comment about whether they are verbalizing or not (e.g. don't say "you know, you can answer with your words".) One caveat: some of these suggestions are different from what would be recommended for a child trying to expand their language. If your child is verbal in these situations, they may just need more time (the five second rule!) to respond.
If your shy child or student does talk, do not compliment or over react to their response. Just respond appropriately: "Oh that's a good suggestion, I think we should read this book instead." Remember, our goal is to help the child feel normalized at school and in social situations. They will begin to feel comfortable when they are integrated into the group, the pressure to talk is decreased, and they are given opportunities to physically and socially participate like the other children.
If you continue to be concerned about your child's lack of verbal participation in the classroom, ask your child's teacher for a referral to the school's speech-language pathologist or psychologist to get more team support for your child.