March is “How to…” month at The Autism Helper. In this post, I will be talking about how to teach students with selective mutism (SM). In my five years of teaching in a cluster/low-incidence classroom, I have had 3 students with SM. If you are not familiar with SM, it is when a student has the capability to produce speech, but does not use verbal communication in a certain setting, like school. Here are some tips for teaching students with selective mustism…
1. Educate Yourself
As a special education teacher, you are a leader for your students, staff and other teachers and staff at your school. The more you can educate yourself about SM, the better it will be for your student with SM. I didn’t know anything about SM before I started teaching in a cluster program and now I model to staff and students how to communicate with a student with SM. There are a lot of misconceptions about SM, so it’s important to make sure you know the facts so that you are better able to help your student.
While SM affects communication, it is has been linked to social anxiety and social phobia. Students with AM are able to produce speech, but only do so in settings in which they feel comfortable (home) or with people they feel comfortable with (a parent). While consulting with a speech pathologist is helpful if you have a student with SM, actual speech services may not be effective for your student with SM if they don’t feel comfortable with a the speech pathologist. Your school social worker or counselor would also be a good related service provider to consult with about your student, as SM is linked to anxiety. For more information about SM, visit The Selective Mustism Center , Selective Mustism Association or Child Mind Institute.
2. Be Patient
This is difficult working with a student with SM because you know that your student can speak. You may have even heard your student speak with a parent, during a home visit or have seen or heard a recording of that child speaking. I even have had dreams that one of my students with SM was speaking in class! One common misconception is the the student is refusing to speak and refusal is very frustrating for teachers and parents. It is important to not only educate yourself, but also re-frame how you think about SM. What really changed my thinking about SM was when I learned non-native English speakers will experience SM. Selective Mustism may start out as being self-conscious about a student’s English ability, but then it turns into a phobia. I have also read that students with SM experience fear because their brains are getting danger signals from their environment, causing more of a fear-based paralysis, rather than refusal. As humans, we can all relate to being scared, so framing SM as a fear can help us to gain more empathy and patience for students with SM.
3. Talk to Your Student
Often students with SM or who are non-verbal don’t get as much attention from adults or peers because they don’t respond. Talking to your student and teaching your students how to talk to a student with SM will help them to feel more included. You can narrate what your student is doing so they know that you are noticing them and the other students will know what their peer is doing. I might say, “Johnny knows what the weather is today because I can see him writing down ‘cloudy’ on his paper”. Modeling for students and staff asking questions to a student with SM and giving choices of answers or visuals to respond will also help your student with SM to feel more included in your classroom.
4. Give Positive Responses for Any Communication Attempt
If a student with SM communicates in any way-using gestures, signs, a core board or communication device, it should be praised, like you were teaching a non-verbal or limited verbal student. If communicating is a positive experience for that child, they are more likely to communicate with you. I had a student with SM who was visibly upset and when I asked him what was wrong, he finally told me, after giving him a series of choices. I praised him for telling me what was wrong and we came up with a solution to his problem so it wouldn’t happen again. Now, he tells me what is wrong more often and it has reduced his tantruming. Something I didn’t know for a while is that students with SM in our district are able to trial a communication device. Check with your district if students with SM qualify and trial a communication device to see if it’s beneficial for your student with SM.
5. Allow Student to Respond in a Variety of Ways
The default expectation in our society is verbal responses. There are many ways to allow a student with SM to respond and demonstrate what they know. Here are a few ideas:
Using multiple choice if helpful for students with SM. They can hold up the letter of their choice, circle, or make the ASL sign for that answer choice. I always like to include a choice that is “something else” or “other” (especially for a preference questions) so I am not limiting my students. Also, incorporating multiple choice written assignments can also help students with SM show what they know, especially in reading comprehension. You could also number your multiple choices so that students can indicate their choice by holding up that many fingers. In a pinch, I also communicate 2 choices by tapping the student’s hands. I might say, “Do you want pizza [tap one of their hands] or a hot dog [tap other hand]”. The student can point to or raise the hand to indicate their choice.
Have students write their responses. This is something you could have your other students do as well because it helps everyone to work on their writing and spelling and it will make your student with SM not feel like the odd one out.
Give students visuals, charts and pointers to help them to receptively show their knowledge.
Use cards with phrases for social communication. Your student can choose a greeting and physically give the card to staff and peers.
I hope you found this post helpful in working with students with SM. If you have more ideas, experiences or resources for working with students with SM, please feel free to share below!