Social Emotional Goal: Targeting Selective Mutism

Selective mutism is a disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate verbally and consistently across all settings. Targeting selective mutism in schools is a complicated task, but here are some tips for interventions and goals to help students with selective mutism lead healthy and happy lives.

Girl sitting alone with three children talking behind her.

What is Selective Mutism?

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that affects a person’s communication in some settings. It can be tricky to detect and differentiate between a child who has a shy temperament and a child who is selectively mute.

Some identifiers of selective mutism can include:

  • Lack of eye contact
  • Extreme shyness
  • Awkward posture/ body language
  • Motionless/ expressionless for periods of time

WISE TIP: It is important to note that selective mutism is an involuntary response to an anxiety provoking situation, rather than a choice.

What Can Cause Selective Mutism?

There are a few causes of selective mutism. As it is an anxiety disorder, children with a genetic predisposition for anxiety compose a majority of children with selective mutism.

As an inexperienced social worker, I mistakenly believed that a serious trauma had the ability to cause selective mutism. I read Silent to the Bone when I was a teenager and it made sense that trauma could cause someone to not be able to speak.

In fact, trauma has little to do with people who are selectively mute. However, trauma can increase anxiety and kids can develop a sense of mistrust, therefore leading them to limit who they open up to, which appears like selective mutism.

Selective Mutism vs. Shyness Chart
Selective Mutism vs. Shyness

Even though people do not make a choice to be selectively mute, there are some effective ways to help kids overcome and handle selective mutism.

Selective Mutism and Special Education

Special education services are not always necessary for a child with selective mutism. However, if they are unable to engage in academics and get their needs met, they may be eligible for special education and related services.

Historically, some professionals have associated selective mutism with autism or a learning disability. This is likely because kids who are selectively mute cannot consistently demonstrate their knowledge verbally and may have poor eye contact.

Selective mutism on its own is not a disability category under IDEA. Children with selective mutism who qualify for an IEP typically are identified with either Other Health Impairment (OHI), Serious Emotional Disability (SED), or Speech Language Impairment (SLI).

Because IEPs are Individualized Education Plans, the disability category that fits a student best will vary based on their other needs and strengths.

While selective mutism affects verbal communication, it stems from anxiety and therefore it is helpful to have the school social worker/ psychologist involved. Typically, the speech language pathologist and mental health person at the school would work in conjunction to provide services and support.

Interventions at School for Students with Selective Mutism

Here are some possible interventions for students experiencing selective mutism:

  • Begin by accepting nonverbal interactions but work towards developing trust so that they feel comfortable to speak eventually
  • Supportive relationships with a few trusted adults is essential
  • Pair the student up with another accepting and patient student
  • Place the student in small group activities
  • Encourage participation (even if it is nonverbal)
  • Maintain good communication with adults at home
  • Do not force or pressure the student to speak

Remember that with any intervention, growth can take time and progress can be slow. Make sure to gear the interventions towards the specific kid for the best outcomes.

Potential Goals for Students with Selective Mutism

As with many anxiety disorders, selective mutism is not something that can necessarily be “cured”. However, by implementing consistent interventions like those listed above, kids can be successful in school and long after they graduate.

Some potential goals for students on IEPs with selective mutism could be:

  • “By August 2023, Jenny will respond with at least one word to yes/ no questions in 3/5 opportunities as measured by classroom teacher and mental health provider observation.”
  • “By the next annual review, Nevaeh will use a break card or verbally ask for a break when experiencing high levels of anxiety from a 3 to a 4 on the SEL Scoring Rubric.”
  • By January 2024, Gabriel will increase verbal communication from one word answers to three word answers using visual cue cards in 9 out of 10 opportunities.”

While each individual student has unique strengths and areas of need, these goals, interventions and supports are a good starting place for students with selective mutism!

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