What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom

What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that impacts children’s ability to communicate verbally in certain settings. It is not simply “shyness” or “disobedience.” This can be very frustrating for both child and teacher when happening in school. Fortunately, help is available.

I almost didn’t notice the little girl in the shopping cart loudly begging her mom for dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. I tend to tune children out when off duty, but I recognized the rainbow sequins sweatshirt. I’d complimented her fashion earlier that day, without response because this child was nonverbal at school. But there she was, loudly creating her dream dinner menu of dinosaur nuggets, macaroni and cheese, ketchup, “no-thank-you-on-the-vegetables” and chocolate pudding. 

I knew she’d been diagnosed with selective mutism. I spent extensive time talking with her mom as well as doing my own research to understand the condition. Hearing her speak for the first time at the grocery store was a delightful surprise. Mom kept the cart moving. They didn’t see me and I didn’t call attention to myself. I didn’t want to break the spell and send her back into her shell.

I recently spoke to Dr. Linda Kudla of The Child & Family Institute. Dr. Kudla wrote her dissertation on selective mutism. She is a psychologist specializing in children and adolescents with selective mutism and other anxiety disorders. I asked how selective mutism might present itself in the classroom and what teachers can do to support students with the condition.  

What is selective mutism?

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association explains it’s more than just shyness. “Some children are shy and do not like to talk to people they don’t know. They usually start talking when they feel more comfortable. However, some children will not talk at certain times, no matter what. This is selective mutism. It is often frustrating for the child and others.” 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) classifies Selective Mutism (“SM”) as an anxiety disorder characterized by a “consistent failure to speak in specific social situations in which there is an expectation for speaking, despite speaking in other situations, interfering with educational or occupational achievement or social communication.” 

Dr. Kudla explains, “Children with selective mutism are often so impaired that the disorder impacts both their academic functioning and overall socialization, as they have limited opportunities for the socialization that is required to face their fear. Many professionals consider selective mutism a social anxiety disorder.”


According to Dr. Kudla, selective mutism is typically diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 5 and occurs in slightly less than 1% of the population. She explains several criteria are needed for diagnosis including:

  • The muteness at school lasts longer than one month
  • This does not include the first month of school when it isn’t unusual for children to be quiet while adjusting to a new environment
  • Language barriers, such as the language spoken at school not being their home language, have been ruled out
  • The muteness cannot be attributed to another condition, such as autism spectrum disorder or a psychiatric disorder 

How it impacts their classroom experience:

Dr. Kudla says there are several common ways selective mutism impacts school life.

1. Verbal and nonverbal communication 

“Children with selective mutism often don’t speak at all in the classroom, especially to teachers. They might communicate nonverbally through gestures, nodding, etc. In the most severe cases, they may not even communicate non-verbally.”

2. Academics 

“Selective mutism does not affect the child’s ability to understand others, so it might not impact schoolwork.  However, many academic expectations include verbal participation, which is where negative effects typically present. The student won’t ask for help, so if they are struggling with comprehension, they are unable to communicate it.”

3. Friendships

“Often, over the course of the academic year, children with selective mutism become more comfortable with a peer, sometimes to the point where they are able to speak to them (though maybe only in a whisper).”

What can teachers do to support students with selective mutism?

Dr. Kudla provides the following suggestions:

  • Don’t put pressure on their speech; allow them to use non-verbal means of communicating
  • Help them with non-verbal ways of expressing a need for help, or other common verbally-made requests in the classroom
  • Have exchanges 1:1 rather than in front of others, especially large groups
  • Help build anxiety management skills so that they are able to manage any anxiety that gets in the way of their speech
  • Refrain from being overly expressive if/when they do speak (to avoid adding pressure)–rather, say something like “thank you for sharing that” and move on
  • Avoid comparisons with others, questions about why they aren’t speaking, or making their success contingent on speech
  • Recommend a psychological consultation for children who are completely non-verbal 
What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom

My dinosaur-nugget loving student moved out of the area before the school year ended. She never spoke at school. Dr. Kudla says it is uncommon for children to naturally progress out of selective mutism, which is another way it differs from standard “shyness.” However, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be very effective in helping children work through the anxiety that keeps then silent. 

Our picks of kid-friendly books about selective mutism:

Disclaimer: Bored Teachers may get a small share of the sales made through the Amazon affiliate links on this page. We only recommend books we love!

1. My Friend Daniel Doesn’t Talk

By Sharon Longo 

What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom


2. Maya’s Voice

By Wen-Wen Cheng

What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom


3. Lola’s words disappeared

By Elaheh Bos

What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom


4. Unspoken Words: A Child’s View of Selective Mutism

What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom


Also Read:

What Is Selective Mutism and How to Address it in the Classroom

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed., an editor at Bored Teachers, is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She's been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga. Connect with her at rachael.m@boredteachers.com
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