Selective mutism or the 'silent period'?

Selective mutism

A few children do not manage the transition from silence to speech in spite of staff using the strategies suggested for children in the silent period. This small percentage of children is sometimes referred to as “selectively mute”; there is no physical reason for their lack of speech but in particular environments, for instance when at school, they do not speak. By contrast in other environments, for instance when at home with family members or friends, they are quite happy to talk.

Much of the recent research into selective mutism defines it as a form of social anxiety or phobia while people who have been able to reflect on their own experiences of selective mutism sometimes talk about their throats feeling “tight” or paralysed. The disorder is quite debilitating and emotionally painful to the selectively mute child.

For children who come from bilingual families and have been exposed to another language during formative language development (2–4 years of age), the additional stress of ‘speaking another language’ and being insecure in their skills can cause an increase in their anxiety levels which can lead to mutism. Such children are usually innately shy and temperamentally inhibited and there is evidence to suggest that they may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety.

The 'silent period'

Many children whose first language is not English go through a “silent period” when they first come into school in this country. This may last for several months but eventually these children do begin to speak at school. Priscilla Clarke’s strategies listed below offer advice on ways to help children through the silent period:

  • continue talking even when children do not respond
  • persistent inclusion in small groups with other children
  • use of varied questions
  • inclusion of other children as the focus in the conversation (pair the learner with a buddy and ask questions of both children)
  • use the first language
  • accept non-verbal responses
  • praise even minimal efforts
  • continue to expect that the child will respond
  • structure lessons to encourage child-to-child interaction
  • provide activities which reinforce language practice through role play
  • remember this is not a passive stage: all the time they are in their silent period, children are taking in everything that is going on around them, including the new language

Clarke, Priscilla (1992) English as a Second Language in Early Childhood

Further information

Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA)

UK-based charity that offers advice and support for teachers and parents