The Child Who Barely Speaks

Q: My oldest child (of three) is a five-year-old girl, attending a local pre-school. I am quite concerned, as she barely speaks at all in class. No matter how we try to motivate her to change this behavior, it doesn’t seem to help the situation. My husband says that she’ll outgrow it, but I am still worried.

A: The most common form of anxiety in a preschool child is that of selective mutism. Its degree may vary: Some children will only speak to their teacher in school, some only to their peers, some will sing but not speak.

It is quite difficult for a parent not to show discomfort over this behavior, but it is of paramount importance not to exhibit disappointment and anxiety. Anxiety breeds anxiety, and a parent needs to internalize the realistic belief that the child will eventually speak more freely in class. A parent needs to refrain from bringing up the topic to her child’s teacher when she picks up her preschooler each day.

What a parent can attempt to do is to work around the problem, rather than continually speaking about it openly. A child can be rewarded for davening in school, stressing how it makes Hashem so happy, or “you sound just like your Tatty.”

A child can have a classmate come to her home after school to play. This sometimes opens a conversation which can continue the next day in school. A child can visit her teacher on Shabbos with her siblings (whom she may possibly speak to), to help open that possibility of communication. A child can have her class birthday party at home if that will assist the process of decreasing her anxiety towards classmates.

A teacher can go around the room with a microphone, giving children an opportunity to speak into the microphone. Sometimes a “borderline” selective mute might be caught off guard and hear her voice in the microphone. When a child does speak, a fuss should not be made. A child does not want to be the center of attention. (Incidentally, his classmates will do the job for you! They will be quite enthusiastic to hear her voice, and will excitedly tell the teacher.)

As selective mutism is connected to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, a parent needs to work on this child’s feelings of competency and self-esteem to help her feel secure about the world around her. Some selectively mute children are perfectionists, and would rather not speak than say something silly or incorrect. In such a circumstance, one needs to work on the child’s issue of never being able to make a mistake, in order to give her the confidence to make a mistake one day in her classroom.

Other children might fear a teacher’s loud voice, or internalize problematic issues that are occurring at home and feel more frightened in class. A parent needs to spend moments of “being silly” together with her child, to allow the child to see that even adults can take life lightly, at times. Accepting the child for who she is during this temporary stage and not broadcasting her selective mutism as a public announcement to others is also of great importance. If asked, a parent needs to say, “She’ll speak when she’s ready. Thanks.”