My Childhood Years in School with Selective Mutism

In this blog post I will be sharing about my journey with Selective Mutism in the school environment. My childhood years in school were quite hard due to Selective Mutism. I would say that I enjoyed some of the learning in school, but because of the anxiety it was often hard to enjoy the full experience of school. Most of the teachers that I had in school had never heard about SM before, and there wasn’t much awareness of it either during my time in school. I think that it would have made a huge difference for me if teachers had been educated about SM, and if I had received more support within the school. My classmates noticed that I was different because I didn’t speak. A few were accepting and kind, while some peers were not. Many of my classmates over the years constantly asked me why I didn’t speak, which made it tougher for me as I didn’t fully understand why I couldn’t speak. I really wanted to speak, but I physically couldn’t get the words out. My family moved around a lot over the years too, which was sometimes challenging because I had to settle in and get used to new places.

My First Year in Preschool

I started preschool when I was 4 years old. At preschool I didn’t speak to anyone except for my sister and our two friends. Most parents don’t become aware that their children have selective mutism, or that they don’t speak in certain situations until they start preschool or school. SM is first usually noticed around this time because this is when the children start to interact more with people outside of their family. Before the age of 4 I mostly interacted with my family and friends of ours that I knew very well, so if I did show signs of anxiety and selective mutism they were likely missed. My parents were informed by my teachers that I wasn’t speaking at preschool. My teachers thought that I was just shy, but it was more than just normal shyness for me. At home I was interacting normally with my family and to them I was a chatterbox. I was still the same little girl that I had always been at home, but at preschool I was a completely different child.

Two very different pictures. The picture to the left is from my first year at preschool, while the other picture is me at home.

Moving Schools

When I was 5 years old me and my sisters moved to another school. The classes were a bit smaller in this school, which I think made me feel a bit more comfortable. I wasn’t in the same class as my sister this year, but this didn’t affect me much. I can hardly remember anything from this year, but I know that I would sometimes speak to one or two close friends that I felt comfortable with during play time. My body language was much more relaxed as well during this year. But during the activities with the whole group I don’t think that I would speak at all. Again, my teachers thought that I was just shy, and didn’t realise that something else was going on. I started the next grade when the new academic year started, and I remember that I was struggling a lot more during that school year. I was in the same class as 4 other students from the previous year, so there was a few peers that I was familiar with, but I had two new grade teachers that year. I am not not sure why that year was much harder for me, but I think that it was the fact that I had other teachers that I hadn’t gotten the chance to get to know and become comfortable with, and also that there were some other changes that year.

When I was 7 years old me and my family went to New Zealand for 5 months. It was when we were in New Zealand that my parents first found out about selective mutism from a teacher I had. That teacher had already had experience with selective mutism in her own family. When we came back from New Zealand I started the first grade in a new school. In early 2010 I moved to another school again because we moved to another city, and I finished the first grade in that school. One of my teachers at that school researched more about selective mutism, and that sort of confirmed for my parents that I was suffering from selective mutism. She was one of the only teachers that actually took the time to research about SM. I don’t remember much how SM affected me in this school, but I remember that I would barely speak during lessons and that I would always be silent in the larger groups.

My teacher saw that I was almost a completely different child when I played with my friends during break time on the school ground. There were two girls in the grade below me that I became quite good friends with, and that I was usually able to speak freely with. I remember that I used to play at their houses on many occasions, and I often had sleepovers with one of them as well. They likely did not know me as the quiet girl because I was able to be myself around them.

In 2011 we moved back to the city that we were born in. My siblings and I went back to the school where I had attended preschool for the first time. Most of my memories with selective mutism in school is from there. I remember once when we visited the school, and I was standing in the school playground with my Dad when two girls approached me and asked if I wanted to play with them. I desperately wanted to say yes, but I froze and I couldn’t move or say anything.

When I came back to that school again the staff there thought that it was better for me to repeat the second grade because of some different reasons, and so I was a year older than everyone else in my class. My teachers at that school didn’t always know how to accommodate me. They clearly had no understanding of Selective Mutism, and would think that I was incapable of doing certain things. My teachers knew enough to never force me to speak though. In the previous schools that I had attended, I either had one or two friends, or my sister in the same class that I could communicate with a little in the school environment. But when I moved back to this school I was completely mute within the school environment. I wouldn’t even be able to speak with my sisters at break time if they were around their friends. I communicated with my classmates and teachers by either nodding my head or shrugging my shoulders. The breaks between the lessons would be very lonely for me. I spent most of them by myself and I would either be sitting on a bench by myself or standing alone in a corner. My anxiety was so extreme that I most of the time wouldn’t be able to play or join in any activity with my classmates.

How I Communicated

My main method of communicating with my classmates and teachers was by either nodding my head or shrugging my shoulders. The only time when I would speak to a teacher was when I was doing separate work in a room away from the rest of the class. I remember that my mom would sometimes be in contact with my teachers to suggest ways for them to help me. She told my teacher to not always skip over me in class discussions or group situations, but to sometimes ask me a question and move on if I couldn’t answer. I was never able to answer a question because I was always too anxious to speak, but my mom felt that it was important for me to be included. At one point during the school year we decided to buy a notebook for me to communicate with my teacher. I wasn’t always able to communicate with this method either, but I remember that I would sometimes use the notebook to ask my teacher a question or to let her know something.

There were times when I said that I wanted to speak in school, and I also remember telling my mom once that I was going to speak to some classmates during the day. But even when I had made up my mind to speak in school I wouldn’t be able to do it. I remember despite trying really hard and wanting to speak, no words would come out and it felt like they were stuck instead.

Speaking with Friends at Home

When I had been attending the school for a while and when I was familiar with my classmates, I started to have some of the girls from my class over for play dates at my house. It was usually only one girl at a time, and although I was never able to speak to any of them at school, I was surprisingly comfortable and able to be myself around them when I met up to play with them. There were a few times when I was invited to some of their houses as well. I think that I never reached the point where I could speak to any of them within the school environment because I did not have the support in school to help me with taking steps towards speaking. Some of the girls were confused at times why I spoke to them at home, but not in school.

There was one girl called Agnes that I became very good friends with at some point. I think that she was one of my only friends at that school who actually accepted the silence in school and me for who I was when she had gotten to know me. I remember that there was a month during the second academic school year when we met up for a few days in a row. During this time we filmed some videos together that we made at my house. My mom sent some of them to my teacher to show her how I was in my comfortable environment. My teachers almost believed that I couldn’t speak at all because I never spoke a word in school. I don’t think that I was actually aware at the time that my mom had sent some of the videos to my teacher, which was probably better for me anyways.

Group Treatment

Sometime during September or October of 2012 I started a group treatment with my parents called Cool Kids. I was 10 years old at the time. This treatment was CBT based, and we did it together with another mom and her young daughter. I don’t remember too much from the treatment. But from what I do remember the first few minutes of each session we met all together in one room, and then the parents worked in a separate room, while me and the other girl in the treatment stayed behind and worked with one of the therapists. The main focus of this treatment was to learn how to meet the anxiety and fear by taking small steps forward, and we did not only focus on the speech. During the sessions we each had a workbook that we worked through together. One thing that I remember is that we focused a lot on a stepladder approach during these sessions. I remember that I started to work on taking a few steps forward to meet some of my anxiety and worry. But unfortunately I never made any progress in school because my teachers weren’t educated in SM, and how to support me. It was very good that my parents and me were getting support for Selective Mutism for the first time, but it wasn’t as effective as it should have been. We stayed in this group treatment for a few weeks only as I remember and I never finished the whole program because my family moved to Hawaii for 3 months.

Saying Goodbye to My Class

Before leaving to go Hawaii, it was decided that it would be best if I got the chance to tell my class in my own words that I was going to Hawaii. I recorded a video with my mom at home to show my class at school, and I can remember being a bit nervous while recording it as I knew that it was going to be watched by my classmates. When the recording was showed to my class, I had the option to do some separate work in another room. This was much better for me because I was worried about the fact that the attention and focus would be on me, and it only made me more anxious. During this recording half of the class heard my voice for the very first time.

Attending School in Hawaii

In Hawaii me and my siblings attended school. It was quite a small school, and there was about 12 students in my class. I came from a class of about 26 students, so I think that it was a bit easier for me to be in a much more smaller class then. I remember that my first day in the school went quite well, but the second day was much harder and I cried that day because I was feeling anxious. My parents had a meeting about me with the teachers at the school that day. I had two class teachers in Hawaii. My two teachers were good, and unlike my previous class teachers they actually believed in me and cheered me on. But as most of my teachers during my school years they unfortunately didn’t have any previous knowledge about SM. They often thought of me as only shy, and misunderstood me and some situations at times. Looking back I think that it could have made quite a difference for me if my teachers would have had resources about Selective Mutism to gain knowledge and understanding.

I remember once when my class had to give a speech in front of each other. My teachers decided that everyone including me needed to do this. I don’t exactly know why my teachers thought that I would suddenly give a speech in front of the whole class when I hadn’t yet spoken a single word to any of my teachers or classmates. I was compliant and didn’t want to disobey or disappoint anyone, so despite freezing in my seat, I somehow managed to stand in front of the rest of the class as we were supposed to do. But as I stood there in front of everyone I remember that I was unable to get the words out, and I think that I that I cried a bit as well. It was quite clear that I wasn’t going to be able to speak or give a speech then, but my teachers were very firm and wanted me to speak, so after a while they said that I had to say at least one word and that I then didn’t have to give the whole speech. It was still very hard for me to get a single word out, but I managed to do it in the end. I remember that they pressured me to speak, which is an example of something that you should never do to someone with SM. I was still able to come back to class the next day, and I don’t think that this experience affected me much afterwards. But this could have made my anxiety so much more worse in the classroom. My teachers usually didn’t force or pressure me to speak in class except for once or twice as I can remember. I think that they soon learned after this to never make me or force me to speak during the class.

If a student with SM is not able give a presentation or speech in front of the whole class then teachers need to find other alternative solutions such as allowing them to do it in front of a friend that they are comfortable with, or record themselves from home, or allowing them to write instead, etc. Please never force or pressure a student with Selective Mutism to speak when it is clear that they can’t. This will only make their anxiety so much worse, and it will do more harm than good.

Moving and Home Schooling

I had a lot of personal growth during the time there, which I didn’t see and notice myself as I was only 10 years old at the time. But I know that my parents and teachers noticed this. Although, I was never able to start speaking during class or with my teachers and peers, I made some progress in speaking in other social situations.

My family went back to Sweden again, and I came back to the same class which I had previously attended just before Hawaii. Coming back wasn’t much of a change for me as I had the same teachers and classmates who I already were familiar with. My siblings and me finished the academic year there. A few months later my family moved away from our home country, and shortly after my mom started home schooling me and my siblings. Home schooling was a different experience for us. I was home schooled for the next 4.5 years. In some ways it was good for me because it helped me to grow more, and to also learn in an environment where the pressure and anxiety wasn’t there.

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