Returning to school after summer vacation is a difficult experience for a child with selective mutism. This transition can be just as stressful for the parents! Sending your child off when you know they can’t communicate and advocate for themselves is heartbreaking. Thoughtful preparation will help make the transition as smooth as possible.
Visit the school and meet the teacher one-on-one
Arrange to have your child meet their homeroom teacher the week before school starts, one-on-one, and spend a few minutes in the classroom without all the other students around. If the teacher has 20-30 minutes to spare, this would be an ideal time to do a fade-in session. (Read more about fading in here.)
Take time to explore the school with your child and try to engage them in conversation in all different parts of the school including the classroom, hallways, library, lunchroom, playground, and gymnasium.
One year we did a scavenger hunt around the school on “Meet and Greet” day with huge success. Our awesome SLP used this book,
and used clues similar to the ones found in this free download.
She set up the clues around the school in advance and notified the teachers and staff that we would be stopping by to meet them. If your child is already familiar with exposure therapy (and you have time to practice beforehand), you could also add a goal to complete at each stop like waving, giving a thumbs up, saying their name or what grade they will be in, etc.
Another helpful activity we did one year during “Meet and Greet” was completing a survey. Buttercup and Petunia each chose the question they wanted to ask, “Do you like chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream better?” and “Do you like dogs or cats better?” We visited the front office, school nurse, art teacher, music teacher, PE teacher, librarian, technology teacher, and their homeroom teachers. Buttercup and Petunia each had a clipboard to tally the results. We also wanted the girls to work on answering questions, so we prepared Buttercup and Petunia to answer their own survey questions when the teachers asked them the questions in return.
Play dates with peers
If you have access to a class list, set up some play dates with peers, preferably during summer break. Some schools are not allowed to give out student’s contact information. We have worked around this by having the teacher send a short letter home in each student’s folder explaining that we would like to set up a play date and giving details of how to contact us if interested. Volunteering in the classroom and attending school activities are also great ways to meet other parents and exchange contact information.
Training for school staff
A formal training for all school staff that will have contact with your child helps everyone understand the basics of SM and how to interact with your child in a helpful way. It is important that all school staff have a basic understanding of SM and what to do and not do when interacting with your child. The training for your child’s teacher, however, should be much more detailed. Gather some basic information to share with the school staff and be sure to share specifics about the needs of your individual child. If you are working with a psychologist or other professional who is familiar with SM, you could have them help with the training process.
Here are some resources that can be used for training teachers and school staff.
CMI workshop – lots of information, best to show clips or have staff watch on their own.
Selective Mutism Learning University Introduction to SM. They also have some great Skills Training Videos that would be helpful for teachers.
Two short videos by Lucy Nathanson, packed with great information.
Prepare peers to interact with your child
It won’t take long for your child’s classmates to realize that your child isn’t speaking. They may assume that your child cannot speak and begin to talk for him or her. Your child may be labeled as “the kid who doesn’t talk.” This only makes it harder for your child to break out of their silence.
It is a delicate balance to educate your child’s peers while not calling unwanted attention to your child. Discuss with the teacher how to handle this topic. Sometimes it may be appropriate for the teacher to have a short discussion of do’s and don’ts with the class while your child is not present. In other situations, it may be preferable to read a children’s book about SM to the entire class to raise awareness, not singling out your child specifically.
Here are a few of my favorite books to share with classmates.
There are also two short videos that explain to classmates how they can support their friend with SM. These may be helpful to show in certain situations (the first for younger kids, the second for older kids and teens).
Request accommodations for your child’s individual needs
In the US, accommodations are made through a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Every child has different needs; however, most will need accommodations for verbal assessments and presentations, preferred seating next to a friend in the classroom and the lunchroom, scheduled bathroom breaks, and one-on-one time with the teacher and time in small peer groups to establish comfort. The Selective Mutism Association has many resources, including an extensive list of possible accommodations, to help you get started with a 504 or IEP.
Plan for meltdowns
Your child is very likely to lose it the moment they get home from school. All the stress from the day at school that gets bottled up inside explodes when they are back in their comfort zone. Prepare to remain calm and help your child find a way to relax after school. They have felt immense pressure all day long. Give them a few minutes to unwind before asking questions and reminding them about chores, homework, etc. Read more on how to deal with your anxious child here.
There is a lot to prepare for, but with some thoughtful planning, you can be confident that your child will get off to a great start and have a successful and enjoyable year at school.