Skip to main content

Selective Mutism in Children: Why My Child Won't Speak at School

What Is Selective Mutism?

My daughter, Catherine, did not speak at school for three years. She went from a happy, talkative toddler in preschool to a silent, anxious five-year-old in kindergarten. The school psychologist guessed that she was just shy and would outgrow the stage. Our doctor told me that she was very strong-willed and just needed more discipline. Neither was correct. It was not until three years later that I discovered she had selective mutism.

Selective mutism is a rare form of childhood anxiety disorder that prevents a child from speaking in certain social situations, such as school or church. It is not to be confused with a speech or language disorder or with willful behavior. The anxiety the child experiences prevents them from speaking. To be diagnosed with selective mutism, the condition must have existed for at least a month.

At school, my daughter did not speak a word to any child or adult, with the exception of her main teacher. To her teacher, Catherine would whisper her basic needs like, "Can I use the restroom?" She also was unable to say the names of her classmates in any setting. Away from school, she had no problems speaking, and in fact, she spoke quite a bit.

How to Recognize Selective Mutism in a Child

  1. The child does not speak in specific social settings, such as school, church, or daycare.
  2. The child seems to freeze and appears anxious in these social settings.
  3. The child does not have these problems in other settings.
  4. The condition has persisted for more than one month.

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

My daughter's selective mutism was directly related to her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder that affects millions. A person with OCD engages in certain compulsions or rituals that help reduce their anxiety. The compulsions are often irrational and can interfere with daily life. You may have seen the movie As Good As It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson portrays a character with severe OCD. His compulsions are very obvious—checking multiple locks on his door, always ordering a very specific meal at the same table in a certain restaurant, and using his own sanitized utensils.

My daughter's compulsions were not as obvious. We were not even aware that she had OCD until she was diagnosed with selective mutism at age eight. Looking back, we noted the following odd behaviors when she was 3–5 years old:

  • She only ate certain colors of food for a few weeks.
  • She didn't eat solid food for three weeks after getting a popcorn kernel stuck in her teeth.
  • She constantly asked if her food was poisoned.
  • She never lay down flat on her bed at night for fear of choking.
  • She lined up small toys in color order.

When we expressed our concerns to her pediatrician, he assured us that she was just strong-willed.

Signs of OCD in a Child

  • Excessive worrying
  • Fear of unlikely catastrophes, such as poisoning, germ contamination, or sudden death of a loved one
  • Getting very upset when things don't go as expected
  • Lining up or counting objects
  • Washing hands a lot
  • Picking skin or pulling hair out
  • Scratching or biting oneself when upset
  • Perfecting homework by spending too much time and erasing a lot
  • Following long, exact routines—for example, at bedtime
  • Collecting random objects to an extreme—for example, shampoo bottle caps

How Can Schools Help a Child With Selective Mutism?

Unfortunately, public schools did not help my daughter in her first three years, but I know now that they could have. My daughter's kindergarten teacher alienated her, and her classmates followed suit. The following year, we switched to a much smaller magnet school that had a reputation for having a nurturing atmosphere. Catherine did well there, academically, and she seemed much happier too. Her teacher often embraced her, and her new classmates did as well. However, she still did not speak. She attended the magnet school for two years, and one day, miraculously, she began to whisper to a certain friend. At the same time, though, she stopped eating at school. It was at that point that we decided to try homeschooling.

Now, I know that Catherine could have received the help she needed if we had all been aware of the disorder and possible treatment plans. Under the guidance of a trained psychologist, a school would be able to gradually introduce speaking opportunities to the affected child. For example, a time would be arranged when the child is alone in the classroom talking with the teacher. Later, they would arrange the same setup with another child in the room but not nearby. The next session, the other child would be closer, and so on.

Tips for Getting Help at School for Your Child's Selective Mutism

  • Prepare a one-page information sheet describing what selective mutism is and pass it on to your child's teachers and principal.
  • Ask the principal if a training session on selective mutism can be provided for all the teachers and staff at the school.
  • Consider asking your school for a formal educational plan to meet your child's needs.
  • If your school does not seem to be cooperating in helping your child, consider asking for assistance from a child advocacy group.

How to Treat Selective Mutism

After the first year of not speaking at school, we privately sought professional help. Catherine participated in 18 months of play therapy and learned coping skills and how to verbalize her fears in general. The therapist never mentioned selective mutism or had any ideas on how to solve the problem of not speaking. She thought Catherine would simply outgrow the silence.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Patientslounge

After we withdrew Catherine from school to homeschool at age eight, I began to research childhood anxiety issues online. This was when I came across selective mutism, and the puzzle pieces started to come together. We sent Catherine to a neuropsychologist who immediately diagnosed her with OCD and selective mutism. Catherine did have some OCD behaviors, and the selective mutism was tied directly to her OCD. Being silent was her compulsion that alleviated her anxiety of being at school.

Once she was diagnosed, Catherine was referred to a psychiatrist for medication management. It was a very tough decision to make, but we decided to give it a shot to see if it could reduce the tremendous amount of anxiety that plagued her. Unfortunately, even the smallest doses of any type of medication had adverse effects on her. In many other children, however, the right combination of therapy and medication management has been very successful in reducing anxiety and related behaviors.

Leaving the Silence Behind

Catherine was homeschooled for three years and did very well—academically and emotionally. For 5th grade, we decided she was ready to try a brick-and-mortar school again and enrolled her in a public Montessori school. She has flourished there beautifully. We had concerns that the selective mutism would come out of remission, but it did not. She absolutely loves going to school. She completes her schoolwork enthusiastically, eats her lunch, has a best friend, and most importantly, she speaks.

Becoming your child's advocate and sharing information with the school will be a huge part of overcoming selective mutism. I once asked a school speech therapist, who had 30 years of experience, if she had ever worked with students who had selective mutism. She replied, "Oh, we have had a few of those. We don't do anything with them, though, because they choose not to speak." Unfortunately, this attitude still exists in many schools, so raising awareness will be a priority in battling selective mutism.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on March 08, 2015:

Hi, Stina

If your daughter is in public school, you may want to consider an IEP - individualized education plan. She should qualify for special services from a speech pathologist or Occupational therapist or both. She would also qualify for special accommodations for the tests.

Cristina Cakes from Virginia on December 02, 2014:

I have been concerned that my daughter has selective mutism for awhile now. She did not talk at all in preschool for two years. She only whispered a bit. Now she is in Kindergarten and has not spoken o even whispered to anyone.

I know she is anxious every day about being away from me. I've had to push with the school to help her instead of ignoring her. She fails all her tests because she will not speak to her teacher and answer the questions. I wish I could help her further but I am not really sure what to do at this point.

teehee23 on April 08, 2013:

I'm 15 and I have selective mutism. :(

I only found out last week. I guess all this started in elementary school. I struggle in school, especially when I have to present something. I also thought to myself, " Why can't I speak like the other kids?"

Amy on January 15, 2013:

Hi I found this site through googling what my daughter is going through and this really makes sense. I have a 4 year old who started preschool this year. She has a twin sister (she is in another class). At the beginning, her sister had a hard time and my daughter didn't. About 2 months ago, my daughter A completely changed. She went from happy go lucky to crying when I would drop her off. Now, she has stopped. Eying, but she no longer talks to anyone in class. She stands in the same spot for 3 hours. We have tried talking to her, her teacher is very hands on with her, we have sent her to her twin sisters class and nothing. She was fine up until 2 months ago. She had a favorite teacher who left around that time, I'm not sure if that has anything to do with it? Im thinking of taking her to the doctor. I don't know what to do.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 18, 2012:

Thank you, our3lilks, for sharing your daughter's story, too. My daughter is now 11 and still has some of those same issues. She would never play on a team and cannot handle being singled out. Though therapy seems to have helped some people, for my daughter, it has just been slowly introducing the new settings that has worked. We celebrate her differences now, actually, because she is quite remarkable in nontraditional ways! Good luck with your daughter, and I hope she comes out of her shell a bit more every day!

our3lilks on April 18, 2012:

Thanks for sharing your story. I can so relate. My daughter has been blessed with great teachers who have helped and accepted her shyness, it helps that she is smart and can usually figure stuff out on her own. After a year and a half of preschool and crying nearly every day I dropped her off I decided it wasn't worth the anxiety she and I went through and took her out of preschool. She proceeded to learn on her own the alphabet and could spell every family members name before she started Kindergarten. When they did testing in Kindergarten, because it was verbal testing and she would not speak they suggested she needed special resource classes. Thankfully her teacher knew better and my Krystal was one of the smartest in her class, she just didn't speak. My concerns for her are not school related they are life related. She has always been popular in school and somehow the more outspoken girls befriend her, maybe because they don't have to compete for the limelight and for her she doesn't have to worry about talking when her friends will do it for her.

Krystal (now almost 10) is naturally athletic but she is so shy she will not play on a team, take a music class, dance class or any class where she might have to talk to someone or could possibly make a mistake and be pointed out. She did do bowling this last year with a friend but she wouldn't even talk to her friend while there, she would cling to me, take her turn, then return back to me. I am just afraid she will miss out on so much because of her shyness and I should know because it my life all over again.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 17, 2012:

Thanks, Teresa. It has been amazing to see the different responses to children with "hidden" disabilities. Some teachers are experienced, understanding and helpful. Others are not at all. Raising awareness helps.

Teresa Coppens from Ontario, Canada on April 16, 2012:

Wonderful articl. Having a child with learning difficulties we have gone through teachers thinking Connor was just lazy. In high school he dealt for two years with an English teacher who implied he did not belong in her class and who refused to honor his IEP. It amazes me and often horrifies me how children with 'Differences' are treated by adults often with a specialized degree behind them. Most have little to no personal experience with these special children. Your daughter has been fortunate To have you as a strong advocate!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 09, 2012:

Very good point, lambservant! That word "selective" does not help the issue. No one would figure the anxiety "selects" instead of the child. There should be a better name. Let me think on that one!

Lori Colbo from United States on April 09, 2012:

I'm wondering Chaplin if you are comfortable with the name SELECTIVE Mutism? It implies that one chooses not to talk. Just curious. Blessings

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 09, 2012:

Thank you for your comment, lambservant! I think there are children who do not speak at all suddenly - and it can be related to post-traumatic stress, like you said - after some kind of devastation. They become completely mute. The problem I have seen with Selective Mutism is that some people just don't see that it is out of the child's control, since after all, they do have the ability to speak and speak in other settings. Hidden disabilities are often the hardest for parents to deal with because there can be so little support. Thnaks for stopping by.

Lori Colbo from United States on April 08, 2012:

I never realized this is an actual disorder. In the movies, the child usually has this problem because of some trauma or devastating life event. I suppose that could happen, but with your story and the video and others comments that doesn't seem to be the rule, but rather an exception, if valid at all. It makes sense that OCD accompanies your daughters selective mute problem. How blessed you all are that she has overcome and is happy and functional at school. It seems to be a little known disorder, which is a shame, and a disservice to the children who suffer. Thanks for sharing your story.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 05, 2012:

Hi, The Magician. I had not heard of Tourettic OCD, only Tourette's syndrome or disorder. So, you taught me something new! Interesting how the anxiety disorders overlap. SM is not always associated with OCD, but often co-exists with at least one of the other anxiety disorders.

Kay B from Tampa, FL on April 05, 2012:

Very interesting, especially about the selective mutism and OCD. I have OCD myself (or sometimes called TOCD, Tourettic Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and often I have an issue with speaking. When I need to tell a story or when someone speaks to me and expects a reply, I have to hold my breath or wait until it feels right to speak. It's really annoying and tough to work around (it drives my mother nuts), but it's bareable!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 05, 2012:

Thank you so much, teaches12345. It was a tough time, and I often questioned what I was doing wrong. Thanks for the encouragement.

Dianna Mendez on April 04, 2012:

I am glad to hear how well Catherine turned out. Your parenting is awesome and deserves recognition. This is a great topic and I am sure it will help someone out there who needs this positive encouragement. Voted up.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 04, 2012:

Thanks, Rebecca. We did feel like homeschooling was our last resort, but it turned out to be a very positive experience all around.

My guess is that the teachers who would see the SM students the most would be preschool teachers and Kindergarten teachers, though I have heard of students in middle school, and even high school with the disorder. Thanks for stopping by.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on April 04, 2012:

I have heard of this but never encountered a student with the disorder. I am glad you were able to home school your daughter. That sounds like the very best route you could have taken! Very interesting Hub!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 04, 2012:

Thanks, kidscrafts. I am glad that it worked out for your son. I agree with you about art and kids. As it turns out, my daughter is very artistic and learns best through art projects at school. As for puppets, the play therapist used those with success as well. And our public schools here in the US are trying to push Art out of school!!!

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on April 04, 2012:

Great article! I must say that one of my son didn't speak until he was past four years old. I remember I was really scared because the attitude of people first was "Don't worry...Einstein didn't speak until he was 6 years old"...I must say, I didn't care about the problem of Einstein. I was only concerned about my son. Anyway...everything finally came around :-)

As a teacher, I had a few really shy students but never a student that didn't speak at all. I think that what happened with my son pushed me to create art project because I found that kids can learn better through art! I especially love creating puppets....because they are the voice of the children! Thanks again for your article!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 04, 2012:

Thanks, Charlotte. SM was once thought to affect less than 1% of children, but the numbers seems to be closer to 2% now. Hopefully, the use of the Internet will help in raising awareness more quickly.

Charlotte B Plum on April 04, 2012:

This was such a useful hub, that many parents and educators should read. This hub gives hope to those who feel like they are at a loss of what to do.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 04, 2012:

Thanks for sharing that, justateacher! That is so sad that the parent does not realize the problem. Carrying around that anxiety is difficult for the little one. I have seen varying degrees of SM, with my daughter's being more extreme in duration. I hope the parent comes around b/c I don't know what else you can do. There is probably a thin line there on what a teacher can say as far as a possible disability?

LaDena Campbell from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz... on April 03, 2012:

A little girl I see at school has this disorder. Although she will very occasionally whisper something to me, she never speaks out loud. When I brought this up to the speech pathologist, she told me that the little girl was just shy and I shouldn't worry about her. The little girl's mother says the girl speaks at home and just doesn't like her teacher so won't speak. I have tried to explain to mom that this is a very real disorder and that her little one needs help, but it falls on deaf ears...

Voted up and useful and SHARED!

Related Articles