While starting a new school year can be an exciting opportunity for a fresh start, it can feel daunting for many. Schools and teachers are busy preparing school buildings for children’s return to in-person education. Parents and caregivers may be coordinating schedules and obtaining any needed school materials for the year. And students may be anticipating reconnecting with friends.
Parents of children with selective mutism (SM) are dealing with the additional stressors of how to prepare their child for a new classroom, new teacher, and potentially new peers or school building altogether. For children who experience anxiety around new people or novel situations, such changes at the start of a new school year can result in a temporary regression or a leap forward in skills depending on a number of factors. Below are our most frequently recommended strategies to help families with selective mutism set the stage for their child’s success in transitioning to a new school year.
***Please keep in mind that every child with selective mutism is unique and may call for more or less support than what is listed below. It is encouraged that you consult with a licensed clinician who specializes in selective mutism to find the best plan for your child’s needs.
- Selective Mutism Training for School Staff. Families who work with us know that a selective mutism training for the key adults in your child’s life is paramount to ensure your child is getting practice speaking in uncomfortable situations. Given the crucial role that teachers and educators play in your child’s life, we always recommend these individuals receive a training in our highly specialized skill set (i.e., Parent Child Interaction Therapy for Selective Mutism or PCIT-SM for short).
A selective mutism training provides psychoeducation about selective mutism and how it can be inadvertently reinforced by very well-intentioned adults in the child’s life. It also reviews the PCIT-SM skillset, including how to warm a child up when they are not yet ready to speak as well as how to effectively prompt a child to speak. This training is typically recommended for classroom teachers, school psychologists/school counselors, other service providers (e.g., occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists), and school administrators; however, any other staff members who are interested in attending are always welcome.
To best set the stage for your child’s success, we recommend this training be completed prior to the start of a new school year when possible. We can facilitate this training with your child’s school in person or online. School districts vary in terms of their ability to participate in a training with licensed clinicians. Our free, online course on SM is a great alternative, providing school staff an opportunity to be trained in PCIT-SM on their own time. You can access Selective Mutism Learning University at https://selectivemutismuniversity.thinkific.com/.
- Teacher Fade-ins. The goal for any child with selective mutism is to be able to speak with the adults and peers in their classroom. The best way to set the stage for success in this area is to ensure that your child is able to respond to their classroom teacher when one-on-one. As such, we recommend parents facilitate a fade-in with your child’s classroom teacher(s) before the first day of school. When possible, conduct this fade-in in your child’s future classroom to get them familiar with their new classroom setting. If going into school before the start of the academic year is not an option, meeting outside the school building at a nearby park or playground or even virtually are good alternatives. Remember to have some of your kiddo’s favorite activities available as you use your PCIT-SM skills to help them engage with their teacher. This fade-in will only be successful if teachers have already been exposed to PCIT-SM. So it is recommended that teachers have either attended an SM training with a clinician or completed SM Learning University before this fade-in.
- Morning Warm-ups. All children with anxiety benefit from having time to warm-up to new people and situations. This is especially true for children with selective mutism. When needed, we recommend that students with SM receive one-on-one time in the classroom with an adult trained in PCIT-SM to start each school day. This will involve some nonverbal play, which will then transition into verbal play when the child is ready. Some students will be able to do this warm-up with peers nearby, while others may require coming into school early to warm-up in an empty classroom before peers arrive. If possible, it is preferred that classroom teachers or school staff facilitate this warm-up; however, parents can facilitate this too. For kiddos who are ready for an extra challenge, this warm-up can include peers to set the stage for their success in peer interactions for the day.
- School Consultation. While a training in selective mutism will help provide school staff with the foundational knowledge of how to support anxious students in the classroom, it by no means is comprehensive. Questions may come up as teachers begin to implement PCIT-SM in their classroom. That’s where school consultation comes in. Weekly, biweekly, or monthly consultation calls with a licensed clinician is a great way to get individualized guidance on how to utilize your PCIT-SM skills to best support students’ SM needs in the classroom.
- Requesting Individualized Education Program or 504 Plan (when needed). As noted previously, schools vary in terms of their ability to dedicate time and resources to students’ special needs. If you are finding that your attempts to engage your school program in the above-described interventions are unsuccessful, it might be time to formally request your child be evaluated for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. Should your child qualify, an IEP or 504 plan will lay out a customized education program with supports and services your child needs to be successful in the classroom. Such an IEP can mandate your child receive any and all of the above-described recommendations by law.