Tips for teachers

Situational difficulty in speaking often appears in school as a lack of speech or little speech. A child may also find it difficult to behave as requested, or to begin to work. A child usually finds it more difficult to speak or work the more people are present.

Try to organize for the child and their parents the possibility to get to know the school when few people are present. It is worthwhile offering the child and parents the opportunity to spend a few minutes together in the classroom without a teacher. In this way, the child may be able to speak to the parents in the classroom and have the experience of speaking in school. This experience is important and will help the child to believe that they can continue to speak in school, even if it does not immediately succeed.

When school begins, it is worth chatting with the child, although you should avoid direct questions. You can increase the child’s feeling of safety by smiling, touching or holding hands in a friendly manner; however, you should avoid making eye contact. It is easier for a child to act and communicate if they can concentrate on one activity or beside one activity. Create a relaxed atmosphere and warmly respond to all of the child’s initiatives for interaction. Take into practice alternative ways of communicating (for example, pointing, showing pictures, drawing) as a temporary support for situations in which the child experiences difficulties in speaking (for example, when the entire class is present).

A child with situational difficulties in speaking does not want to be different from others – aim to offer means of support for the use of all pupils if needed. You could also make a habit for the entire class to make use of non-verbal ways to answer in certain activities.

It is important that other members of staff have information about difficulties in speaking, especially other teachers and substitute teachers who teach the child. If there is a folder in the classroom that has important information about the class and the class’s mode of operation and suchlike for substitute teachers, it would be useful to add to the folder a short description of selective mutism and useful ways to behave. You need to agree on this matter separately with the child’s parents, however, due to the date protection law.

Some classes may have teaching assistants. Usually, children with selective mutism do not like being watched. A teacher or assistant may mean well and stand next to the child to help them; however, this can just increase the child’s anxiety. More useful is watching the situation from afar and now and again going to ask if the child needs help.

Try to find time to be alone with the child for a short time in the classroom or the corner of a room. Chat to the child and pose questions, more to yourself than to the child, and think aloud. In this way, you offer the child the opportunity to answer but you neither expect an answer or force them to speak.

To alleviate their anxiety, a child may need a ’safety blanket’, soft toy or other important thing that they bring to school with them. Usually, having the important thing in their school bag is enough.

Follow the child’s ability to work: the more anxious they are, the slower they work. Sometimes, work does not happen at all, the child feels frozen in the spot and has no expression on their face. Think about whether another place in the classroom could help relieve the child’s anxiety. For many children, it is easier to peacefully follow situations, for example, from the back of the classroom or a corner. Someone might find it easier to work close to the teacher. Evaluate the effect of the changes you make on the ability of the child to work: if the child finds it easier to work, your change is in the right direction. Relaxation happens slowly; it needs time and patience.

As a support for teaching, it is worthwhile benefiting from pictures and making things by hand. Also humour can help to relax, children usually like funny situations. Hand puppets, masks, role play outfits and acting can help a child to talk. Take advantage of the child’s strengths to support their learning – clarify what the child is talented at and what he or she likes to do at home.

Take advantage of small group work whenever possible – start with a group in which are 1-2 of the child’s friends. Give the child a partner or group, do not expect that the child will pick for themselves. Actively support the child’s friendships and being with other children also at break times. Help the child to participate, although he or she cannot yet speak.

Communication with parents and other caregivers is very important. You can get support and tips for your own work from your school’s multidisciplinary team. Every child is different, this is also true for children with situational difficulties in speaking. The better you get to know the child and learn to know and understand him or her, the easier it will be to find suitable methods and ways to work that suit them.

SOURCES: The Ideal Classroom Setting For the Selectively Mute Child, Dr Elisa Shipon-Blum 2007



  • Upper-school pupils want to be the same as everyone else, so do not treat them differently because of their difficulties in speaking.

  • In your teaching, pay attention to the pupil’s individual needs. The young person does not want to make noticeable their difficulty, although attending school may cause considerable anxiety and tension. The young person must be able to trust that they can feel safe in lessons, and will not be pushed or enticed to speak until they are ready.

  • All young people need confirmation that they will manage and are talented. Young people with situational difficulties in speaking particularly need positive feedback about their strengths. Remember to encourage the young person who has difficulties speaking, but do not make them feel they are in the spotlight.

  • Other pupils may tease the young person who has difficulty in speaking, may speak about their difficulty out loud in front of others, or may shut them out of conversations. Young people with situational difficulties in speaking cannot verbally defend themselves. For example, the situation in which other pupils wonder about the young person’s inability to speak or laugh at them can be extremely distressing for the young person. It is very important that as the teacher, you intervene in the situation immediately.

  • Do not speak about situational difficulties in speaking when other pupils can hear if you have not gotten permission from the young person themselves. Instead, you can talk to the young person or their parents in private and agree together on alternative ways to perform tasks that require speaking.

  • You can ask permission from the young person to talk about their difficulties in speaking with the class when the young person is not present. If you get this permission, you must highlight to the class that the young person is the same as everyone else, except that speaking in school is difficult for them. You can also tell that everyone has their own strengths and challenges. Tell the pupils that it is better not to talk about difficulties in speaking in the hearing of the young person just as it is better not to talk about anyone else’s difficulties.

  • Start using alternative means of communication during lessons with the entire class.

  • Take advantage of phone applications and other alternatives to show participation in lessons. It is likely that there are others in the class who might find talking in lessons stressful and who would benefit from alternative ways to participate.

  • Communicate with your pupils by email or other messaging application. By offering this means of communication to the entire class, the young person with situational difficulty in speaking will not feel different to everyone else.

  • Offer the young person the opportunity to record their language studies homework and send it as a voice message.

  • You could also offer the entire class the opportunity to record their presentations at home.

  • While paying attention to data protection, ensure that knowledge of the young person’s difficulties in speaking is spread to all teachers and substitute teachers who teach the young person. The young person may encounter many distressing situations if a new teacher or substitute teacher does not know about the difficulty. In the worst case scenario, the new teacher or substitute teacher could demand the young person to speak in a situation for which they are not ready. This experience could raise the threshold of speaking in the future and increase anxiety related to attending school.

  • When your teaching involves small group work, put the young person in a group in which is one or more friend. The presence of a friend can decrease the young person’s tension and anxiety. Actively support the young person’s friendships and being with other young people also during breaktimes. If the young person is alone during breaktime, develop activities in school that do not need speech. For example, table football, craft class or a reading corner. Many other pupils will benefit from alternative activities during breaktime.

  • In all school activities, ensure that pupils can always answer by writing or, for example, by using a phone application. In this way, the young person can participate in all school activities and affect general school affairs.