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Selective Mutism and School ‘Scaries’! Advocating for your Child with SM

As a caregiver, one of the most difficult aspects of having a child with SM is answering the question: Is there something else I can be doing?! Any parent will feel an ache of anxiety over deciding when to step in and when to step back. Knowing how to support your child with SM at school can bring up this very challenging dance!

Who do you talk to? What do you advocate for? How long will your child need support?

Every child and every school is unique. However, here are some general guidelines that will hopefully help you feel more educated and empowered.

Identify a key person or point of contact. Depending on your school, this can be a homeroom teacher, the principal, a special ed director or a school counselor/psychologist. If you’re unsure, check in with your child’s teacher, tell them you have concerns about your child’s ability to communicate and access the curriculum and ask who would be the best person to set up a meeting with.

Be Collaborative! Sometimes, teachers are not aware of your child’s challenges or are under-resourced and spread thin. Facing resistance from school staff can feel very demoralizing, but it is important to remember that everyone at the table wants your child to be successful. Listen and ask questions. Provide the teacher with psycho-education, and do your best to come up with a plan that will support your child and be sustainable for the teacher.

What do you advocate for? Again, every child is different. Here are some guidelines.

o Staff psycho-education and training. Ask that resources be shared with the staff that interact with your child on a daily basis. Teachers, counselors and admin need to understand what selective mutism is and how to interact with your child.

o Schedule a fade-in with homeroom teacher and/or other staff

o Set 2-3 goals around communication and slowly work up a ladder

o Establish a positive reinforcement system that supports your child’s goals

o Set up expectations for regular communication between you and school key person. Ask them what makes most sense (i.e. a weekly email, a chart that goes home in the backpack, a weekly phone call)

o Discuss accommodations your child might need, i.e. a bathroom pass, sitting closer to the teacher, being seated next to a familiar peer

How long and when does your child need less or more support? Set up a system for tracking your child’s progress, such as a weekly chart that the teacher fills out. When your child has mastered their current goals, start working on the next step on the ladder. Ideally, we want our kids to be able to speak in all settings where a child their age is expected to speak, accessing their education and establishing social and emotional connections with peers. Progress can be inconsistent and happen in small, incremental steps. It’s important to acknowledge your child and their teacher for the hard work and progress along the way!

Many parents ask how they can help their children to communicate and make connections with peers. Playdates! Ask your child’s teacher to if there are any peers your child is connecting with at school, i.e. playing with at recess, sitting next to, has common interests with. Playdates give your child the opportunity to take risks and build relationships in a 1:1 setting.

o Pick a place your child is very familiar with like your home or a park near your house

o Have a game or activity planned that your child enjoys and provides the opportunity for communication (i.e. Spot it!)

o Give your child 10-15 minutes to warm up before you start prompting them to speak

o Use yourself as a bridge to help your child start communicating

o Set goals with your child prior to the playdate and a reward system

o Keep the playdate 1-3 hours and create a visual schedule to set your child up for success.

o If your child is speaking with a peer during a playdate, tell the teacher to pair them or seat them together at school to build on that relationship!

Roadblocks? Depending on the district, a school may require an IEP or 504 in order to provide special accommodations and track goals for a child. If you are facing resistance or refusal from school staff, pursuing a 504 or IEP may be the next step to obtaining the services and accommodations your child needs at school.

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