In recent months, more than five high school students, diagnosed with selective mutism have crossed the doorstep into our mental health agency.  These adolescents were, for the most part, very bright and interested in the sciences. Others were interested in mathematics and indicated a desire to obtain a college degree in this field.  All of them had wonderful grades in the above average percentile.  All of them had the knowledge to make a difference in these academic areas and to assist the community as a whole.  Yet they are potentially at risk for being penalized under current Common Core Standards for language, simply because they can’t talk.

There has been enormous controversy surrounding the adoption of the Common Core Standards within the educational system.  Although addressing all the ramifications of the Common Core Standards is beyond the scope of this work, I would like to consider how certain standards impact selectively mute students and what can be done to remedy that.

Selective mutism is a social anxiety disorder in which people who are capable of normal speech talk in certain situations, such as home, but are unable to speak in other places, such as school.  It tends to be diagnosed in early childhood, but without appropriate intervention can affect older children, teens, and adults.

Historically, it has been difficult for the majority of selectively mute schoolchildren to obtain an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) to access in-school services to help overcome this complex anxiety disorder.  Typically the child is assessed using the prevailing special education assessments to evaluate cognitive, language, and motor abilities.  All too often, parents are told at a meeting to discuss the test results that his or her “selective mutism does not effect his learning.”  The majority of selectively mute children are bright.  Most selectively mute youngsters are assessed individually and the testing instrument may be non-verbal to accommodate for the youngsters’ inability to speak.  The fact that the youngster cannot function the same way as his speaking peers in the school setting is secondary to the standardized tests used to evaluate skill in certain areas (reading, knowledge, following directions, etc.) .

A common theme seen among parents of the adolescents seen in our practice is, “The teachers said that he was a smart kid…and very nice. He just didn’t talk. We didn’t get any ongoing services to help. There was someone early on who would take him from time to time, but it never continued.”  Some schools even gave them the names of community mental health providers.  Today most specialists working with this disorder know that mental health services must eventually generalize to occur within the school setting and are not able to give selectively mute children the specific treatment the condition requires.  As a result, none of these selectively mute adolescents are job ready or college ready. Their severe anxiety and lack of “point of performance” services have rendered them unable to communicate effectively to compete for occupations and/or advanced education.  Such services include, but are not limited to speech and language services, in-school behavioral treatment, selective mutism training and consultation for school personnel. 

Effective communication is the number one skill cited by employers as necessary when entering the job market.  Most high school juniors and seniors know all too well the value of a college interview.  This form of communication is typically not developed in those selectively mute students who have not received what is considered best practice when working with this population.

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (The Standards) (2010), note that , in an effort to make all students career ready and college ready they include key features to this end:

“Speaking and Listening:  Flexible communication and collaboration including but not limited to skills necessary for formal presentations.  The Speaking and Listening Standards require students to develop a range of broadly useful oral communication and interpersonal skills.  Students must learn to work together, express and listen carefully to ideas, integrate information from oral, visual, quantitative and media sources, evaluate what they hear, use media and visual displays strategically to help achieve communicative purposes, and adapt speech to context and task.”

Most public schools in the United States adopting The Standards are now saturating lessons in the development and usage of so-called “Academic Language”.  Academic Language is generally understood as different from the language typically used with friends and family.  It involves lengthy, analyzed, and explicit communication.  Oral communication propels academic language.  It drives study, information gathering, problem-solving, and power. Zwiers and Crawford (2011) define academic language as,

“the set of words, grammar and organizational strategies used to describe complex ideas, higher-order thinking processes, and abstract concepts most often found in academic and professional settings.”

The requirement of developing oral academic language is currently strong.  Students practice lessons in conversing with peers on kindergarten topics when they first enter school all the way to high school where the requirements grow.  In high school students are practicing collegial discussions, posing questions to others, and adapting speech for a variety of contexts and tasks. There are even textbooks on developing and expanding academic language in the classroom and with culturally diverse students who do not have a full grasp of English.  Yet, many selectively mute youngsters continue to sit silently at least eight hours a day, causing a huge gap in this skill necessary for occupational and academic success.

Selectively  mute youngsters often enter the education system not able to mutter a sound, let alone have a conversation with others.  In their frustration, teachers will call parents to state that they can’t assess their child because he or she doesn’t speak.  Parents, in their desperation to help their children and their teachers, will sometimes videotape the student so the teacher has an idea of what the child knows.  However well meaning this gesture is by both parties, it demonstrates that the child is unable to function in school.  This kind of “work-around” is insufficient and supports the need for an IEP with in-school services to overcome selective mutism in order for these too-quiet kids to have a full education like their classmates.

Common Core State Standards Intiative  Preparing America’s Students for College      and Career. 2010

Zwiers, J. and Crawford, M. 2011 Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings.  Portland, MA:  Stenhouse, p.12

Marian B. Moldan, LCSW-R, formerly selectively mute,  is a Clinical Social Worker and Director of Childhood Anxiety Solutions, LCSW, PLLC.  Marian Moldan is also a NYS Certified Special Education Teacher. She has written and given local and international workshops on Selective Mutism.  She maintains two offices on Long Island and consults with a number of school districts in New York and New Jersey.  She is author of the interactive children’s book, “Charli’s Choices” for selectively mute and socially anxious children.