Selective mutism usually manifests itself in school or kindergarten, the most commonly seen clinical picture is that of a child who speaks normally in the home with his immediate family, but fails to speak to children and\or adults in the school or kindergarten setting. This places the teacher at a juncture in which she can be a significant agent of change. The teacher controls much of the environment in which the SM flourishes and her active participation in treating SM is vital.
We have developed a comprehensive treatment method designed to assist the child in the main settings in his life, with a three-pronged intervention – parents, teachers and therapist, who simultaneously strive to assist the child to overcome his difficulty. When all three sectors act in coordination, the effect is powerful. While the therapy is ongoing, both the parents and the teachers will be carrying out their own interventions, aimed at pulling the child out of the pit of SM.
Here are the five major areas in which the teacher can prove invaluable in her assistance to the child with SM:
1. By developing a communicative relationship between the teacher and child, and not exempting her from activities because of the SM
2. Helping to lower the child's anxiety level in school
3. Helping him to interact socially with other children
4. Encouraging the child's independence, assertiveness and self esteem in school.
5. Working towards blurring the distinction the child has made between home and school functioning.
All these categories are fully described in our teacher's manual. Here I will give a few examples to illustrate each of the above:
Sometimes, when a child fails to speak, the educational staff feels that they cannot have a communicative relationship with the child. Teachers are encouraged and guided so that they build a warm, supportive, communicative, non-verbal relationship which is a precursor of verbal contact between child and teacher.
This social contact with the teacher is also a cornerstone in easing the anxiety level of the child, as now the child can express to the teacher issues that may be upsetting him, such as bullying, social and academic concerns. He may request changes which could make him more comfortable at school, such as sitting next to a friend. Another vital key to lowering the child's anxiety level in school is that the staff does not put pressure on the child to speak. The teacher must tow a fine line between not putting pressure on the child to speak, while at the same time including him in all of the ongoing social and academic activities.
The teacher can encourage social interaction with peers by putting the child in small groups of children who seem a good match with him, by sitting him next to a friend etc. He can be give a special position or lead a project in an area he likes and at which he is skilled.
And finally, contact between the home and school is vital, including home visits, utilizing the parents' understanding of the child, and thinking together with the parents and therapist about elements which can make the child feel more at home in school.