Solutions for Selectively Mute Students and Educators: The Long-Term Adverse Educational Effects When Inappropriate Behavior is Ignored

Solutions for Selectively Mute Students and Educators:

The Long-Term Adverse Educational Effects When Inappropriate Behavior is Ignored

Dear Colleagues,


   During a recent elementary school consultation, a building-level Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Team was beginning a student case study using our data-based problem-solving process.

   The case involved Brittany (a pseudonym), a young girl at the early elementary school level who was repeating a grade and appeared to be selectively mute. When she entered the District in preschool, Brittany qualified for speech services for both articulation and receptive and expressive language. Before preschool, she had a history of middle ear infections, tubes were put into her ears three times, and her speech development at home was quite delayed.

   Brittany talked and verbally interacted with others (including her Speech Pathologist) during her first year in school... until approximately March. Around that time, she lost one of her grandparents. . . and then she lost a second grandparent during the next summer. Significantly, Brittany never stopped talking at home after her grandparents died, and her mother reports that “she talks so much at home with no issues.”

   After receiving a video of Brittany reading to her parent at home, Brittany’s current teacher showed her the video, telling her that “your mom wants you to read at school like you do at home.”  That day, Brittany did speak and read aloud a portion of her book. She has now read the whole book to her teacher, and she has started on a second book. 

   Since then, Brittany has spoken more to her teacher. . . when prompted, but not at her own initiative. She will also talk to some peers when prompted, and she even talked to me—a total stranger—when I was in her classroom and asked her name and told her that she had “a pretty voice.”

Selectively Mute Children

   Selectively mute children are among the most challenging to work with successfully. In the final analysis, you cannot “force” a student to talk, you can only “motivate” them.

   But the beginning of the process, nonetheless, begins by understanding the student—trying to isolate the “why” before moving on to the “what (to do).”

   While some might assume that Brittany stopped talking at school because she lost her grandparents, that did not explain (a) why she continued to talk at home after their passings, or (b) how a family loss would “mysteriously” affect her interactions at school. And yet, this is what happened as I watched the Case Study in the MTSS Team meeting I was observing unfold.

   By way of background, according to Psychology Today’s Diagnostic Dictionary:

Selective mutism is a rare childhood anxiety disorder in which a child experiences a trigger response and is unable to speak in certain situations or to certain people. It is not a form of shyness, though it may be thought of as extreme timidity. Nor is it an intentional refusal to speak, though it may be perceived that way. The child is simply unable to speak. Symptoms and co-existing conditions can vary from individual to individual, as can treatment options.

Symptoms. The onset of selective mutism is usually between the ages of 3 and 6. Most children who develop selective mutism also suffer from social anxiety, or social phobia. Temperamentally, they are timid and cautious in new situations, even as young infants. They may experience separation anxiety. Many show physical signs, such as awkward body language, stiffness, and lack of facial expressions. Those who are comfortable in a situation may be mute but have more relaxed physical characteristics. A child with selective mutism may speak in some select situations but not in others, or with select people but not with others.

For instance, the child may speak normally at home or with close friends, but not at school or other social settings, where there is the expectation or pressure to communicate. Some children with selective mutism can use nonverbal communication, such as nodding their head or moving their hands, while others may appear frozen. Others may experience so much pressure for their selective mutism that they become mute in all situations, with all people. To be labeled selectively mute, the symptoms must continue for at least a month, not including a child’s first month of school.

What are some signs of selective mutism? Children who suffer selective mutism may appear: Shy, socially awkward, anxious, insecure and clingy, embarrassed, rude, indifferent or aloof, stiff or tense, avoids eye contact, remains expressionless, and or motionless. However, with family or other close relationships, the child may be angry and aggressive. Some will use hand gestures to communicate. With the prospect of a social event or even while preparing for school, kids with selective mutism may suffer stomachaches and headaches, or feel nauseous or suffer diarrhea.

Causes. Children with selective mutism often have a family history of anxiety disorders. The neurological basis for selective mutism is thought to be a cascade of events in an area of the brain known as the amygdala, which receives danger signals from the environment. The anxiety from a situation perceived as dangerous to the child’s well-being causes a communication shutdown. Children with selective mutism may have a variety of co-existing disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder,  developmental delays, or sensory processing difficulties.

Treatment. (When confirmed), (i)t is best to seek behavioral therapy or family therapy as early as possible for a child with selective mutism because the condition may not go away on its own. It is important to the success of therapy that the mental health care provider be a good fit for the child and the family. Treatment typically includes helping the child develop skills to control their anxiety and “unlearn” their dependence on mute behavior. In some cases, treatment may also include antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication in addition to psychotherapy.

   The first issue, as I watched the school’s MTSS Team deliberate, was that they began to develop selective mutism interventions before collecting and analyzing the objective, independent, or clinical data that confirmed that diagnosis.

   While the collection of data was the primary MTSS Team agenda at this meeting, too many MTSS Teams use whatever information is available, “jump” to premature conclusions, develop improper interventions that expend time and resources, make the problem worse or more resistant to change because of this, and end up missing or delaying the right interventions.

   The second issue was that, even if Brittany was correctly diagnosed with selective mutism, a root cause analysis was still needed to isolate the emotional and/or motivational events that triggered her lack of talking at school. . . so that these triggers could be targeted by and integrated into the intervention.

   Given this, the best MTSS Team consultant for Brittany’s case would be an appropriately-trained school or child-clinical psychologist. Moreover, the root cause analysis would likely include social-emotional and behavior rating scales, classroom and other observations, interviews with parents and teachers, and assessments with Brittany herself.

   Until these assessments are completed, the MTSS Team should probably refrain from making definitive diagnostic conclusions, and specific interventions should not be implemented.

   Indeed, while Brittany’s lack of talking in class is concerning (hence, the MTSS referral), she is currently not in psychological crisis. Brittany is attending school, she is staying in her classroom the entire day, and she is eating lunch and going out to recess without any problems. Once again, the wrong intervention at this stage of the game might counterproductively “make the problem worse.”

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   Schools are necessarily complex and multi-layered organizations that too often are conceptualized and run in simplistic and sequential ways.

   Many think: “All we need are good teachers, sound curricula, essential resources, and motivated students, and we’ll be successful.”

   But that’s simply not true.

   It’s not true in business. . . not true in government. . . not true in the non-profit world. . . not true in medicine. . . and not true in education.

   Indeed a good hospital is not simply about the presence of good doctors, nurses, and support staff. A good hospital is also dependent on effective planning, organization, staffing, training, teaming, implementation, and evaluation. . . the processes that make it successful.

   Good schools. . . that maximize all students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and independence. . . are exactly the same. They need both skilled professionals, as well as sound processes.

   When MTSS Teams use an effective data-based problem-solving process, the Problem Analysis step should always be completed before any clinically-targeted services, supports, strategies, and interventions are determined, linked, and implemented.

   Said a different way: MTSS Teams should not—figuratively—play “intervention roulette” by brainstorming or spit-balling interventions.

   As we have asserted in the past:

“Every time you do an intervention with a child that does not work, you potentially make the child more resistant to the next intervention.”

Selectively Mute Educators

   In a parallel way to the Case Study above, there are times when I work with “selectively mute educators.”

   While I am sensitive to the dynamics and the desire to protect themselves and their jobs, these are educators who know that something is significantly wrong with, for example, the quality of instruction and/or supports to students. . . in a colleague’s classroom, at their grade level, in their department, at their school, or in their district or educational setting.

   And yet, they remain selectively mute about it.

   Indeed, these educators share their concerns with their closest colleagues, their confidants, and their spouses or significant others.

   But they do not share their concerns with the individuals who are directly or indirectly hurting their students. And they certainly will not share their concerns with those who need to know (including parents), and those (e.g., supervisors or administrators) who have the potential to remediate, eliminate, and improve the situation.

   Instead, these educators often “look the other way,” or assume (hope) that someone else will address the problem.

   This is most frustrating when students’ academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral learning, progress, and proficiencies are being directly affected or undermined. . . and when these students’ classrooms are negative, unsupportive, demeaning, or toxic.

   It is equally frustrating when specific colleagues’ behavior in group or team meetings damage the climate, communication, and productivity of the group. . . and indirectly impact the quality of instruction.

   All of this is more than heartbreaking. It is unnecessary, unprofessional, disgraceful, and unethical. . . especially when students’ safety, security, physical or emotional well-being, or educational futures are being compromised.

Electively Astute Solutions

   As with our Case Study above, it is important to—a la Covey:

“Seek first to understand; Then to be understood”

   That is, if we see colleagues demonstrating consistent, persistent, or significantly inappropriate professional or personal interactions with students—and we are inclined to be selectively mute—we need to, directly or indirectly, collect the information so that we can understand where they are coming from.

   The “high-hit” reasons for these inappropriate interactions often run along a continuum that includes the Colleague:

  • Being Unaware of what they are doing and/or its impact
  • Not having the Skills to perform or behave appropriately
  • Not having Emotional Control under specific conditions
  • Not caring, or having an underlying reason or motivation for the harmful behavior
  • Experiencing some personal or historical “special situation” in their out-of-school lives that is impacting their interactions at school

   To collect the information needed to differentiate among these possibilities, we need to observe and then approach the colleague-in-question to discuss the issue(s)-at-hand.

   While this is a scary proposition, if we have a good relationship with the Colleague, this is an important step.

   In fact, this direct approach is often better than “doing an end run” and discussing the issue immediately with a supervisor when (a) we do not yet understand the problem from our Colleague’s perspective, and (b) the Supervisor may turn the situation into a “personnel issue” that impairs our relationship with the Colleague (or worse).

   Indeed, if done well, a direct, empathetic, problem-solving discussion with the Colleague may both resolve the issue and strengthen the relationship.

   To do this well, it is recommended that you:

  • Prepare and practice your collegial discussion ahead of time—focusing on your concern for the Colleague and his/her students, what you are observing and its outcomes, and your desire to better understand the situation from the Colleague’s perspective.

Your preparation and practice should include anticipating your Colleague’s possible positive, defensive, and/or negative reactions, your counter-responses, and how to maintain your emotional control and effectiveness during the actual discussion.

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  • Set up a time and place for your collegial meeting that allows both privacy and enough time for the discussion.

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  • At the beginning of the meeting, identify the purpose and goals for the discussion, emphasizing your desire to better understand the situation, and to be as helpful as you can.

One goal should be a focus on what you think your Colleague needs to change, improve, and do. . . rather than what your Colleague needs to stop or discontinue doing.

Here, you might describe times where you have seen the Colleague behave or interact appropriately, suggesting that this same behavior is needed more consistently across time, settings, students, or colleagues.

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  • During the meeting, use a tentative, empathetic, problem-solving tone of voice (think Columbo), while simultaneously communicating that you are not comfortable with the behavior continuing.

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  • Describe the behavior or interactions of concern directly and explicitly, avoiding the tendency of being vague or overly wordy as a way of nervously “talking around the problem.”

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  • Listen carefully to your Colleague’s response, watch his/her posture, and attend to his/her tone of voice and sincerity.

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  • If you feel that your Colleague understands your concerns and is committed to change, you can summarize these elements and thank him/her for understanding the importance of the issue to you and your students.

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  • If your Colleague rejects the concerns or is not committed to change, you can suggest—if the behaviors or interactions warrant this—that the two of you meet with a Supervisor or Administrator for further discussions.

A Consultation Example

   As an outside consultant, I need to take a different tack when I see staff behavior or interactions that I have experienced, investigated, and validated as significantly unprofessional and potentially harmful to students.

   This tack is often based (a) on my contract with the school, district, or agency, and who I am professionally responsible to; and/or (b) the depth or breadth of the problem at-hand.

   Most often, if specific teachers or a group of teachers are demonstrating harmful behavior or interactions toward students (including where they are withholding services or supports). . . and my contract is with the school. . . I talk with the Building Administrator.

   NOTE that I do not talk with the teachers involved as (a) I do not know that the Administrator—who the teachers are accountable to—wants that to happen; (b) I do not know whether there is a history of similar teacher problems in the past that the Administrator is already addressing; and (c) I cannot predict how the teachers will respond, because I have no history with them.

   In some cases, however, the problem is broad enough that it warrants, for example, a “higher level” discussion.

   I remember a consultation one time in the Mid-West where a school administrator brought me in for a number of days to train her staff on social skills instruction. One day, we began to discuss student behavior in the common areas of the school, and concerns about the “Orange bus” were shared. Apparently, this bus was consistently out of control, and students would walk into school most mornings similarly out of control due to the bus ride in.

   I offered to do “bus training” with the Orange bus, and all of the students who rode that bus were summoned one lunchtime and told to get on the bus where I was to conduct a “social skills lesson.”

   Within minutes, I lost complete control of the kindergarten through Grade 5 students on the bus (fortunately, the bus was only parked in front of the school). At that point, I shut down the lesson, and students were returned to lunch.

   It was only then that I was told that the bus was full (literally and figuratively) with students from two nearby trailer parks, and that the residents of these trailer parks had been feuding for over three generations (think “Hatfield’s and McCoys”).

   I now understood (and experienced) the seriousness of the situation.

   This was validated by the Orange Bus Driver—who told me his ongoing concerns about a potential accident, because his attention was often on students in the rearview mirror, rather than on the cars on the road in front of him.

   And, this was “topped off” by the school’s Administrator who told me that (a) the District’s Transportation Director refused to change the composition of students on the bus, and (b) would not fund or hire a full-time Bus Assistant for the bus.

   Given all of this—even though I was “hired” by the school’s Administrator, I felt that this was a “higher-level” district and community problem that was affecting many students (in their classrooms when agitated Orange bus students came in), and was putting the students actually on the Orange bus at risk (if an accident were to occur).

   Thus, I dropped by the district office and met with the Superintendent—rather than choosing to be selectively mute. In essence, I felt my superintendent meeting was necessary on an professional, ethical, and moral basis.

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   My approach was similar to the one recommended above when a colleague needs to provide feedback to another colleague.

   With one contextual difference given my role as a consultant.

   When I introduced the discussion with the Superintendent, I told him that:

  • I was there to share, from my perspective, important information that I thought he needed to hear.

My intent was not to suggest that the District was doing anything wrong, to tell the District what to do, or to assume that the District did not care about the Orange bus situation.

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  • I then described what I had been told—from a data-based perspective—about the Orange bus, its students, and their impact on the school; and then detailed my experience with these students while trying to conduct my social skills lesson with them that day.

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  • I finally addressed the seriousness of the situation, the potential harm to these students if a bus accident were to occur, and some possible interventions (i.e., putting the students from the two trailer parks on different buses, hiring a full-time Bus Assistant, holding some community meetings—perhaps with representatives from the Mayor’s office and law enforcement—to enlist the help of the parents).

Here, I also reflected on the District’s legal liability if an accident actually occurred, and emphasized the potential that any lawsuit would uncover the District’s knowledge of the seriousness of the Orange bus situation, as well as the District’s neglect in intervening in the situation.

   As recommended above, my discussion with the Superintendent was factual, matter-of-fact, and focused on expressing a legitimate concern—while offering my continued assistance if my further involvement was desired.

   I told the Superintendent that he might not be happy that I—an outsider who he did not know—was giving him this feedback.

   But I also told him that—for me to be professionally responsible as an invited consultant in his District—it would be irresponsible for me to avoid our conversation and be “selectively mute” because he might be angry or upset.


   Two variations of someone being “selectively mute” were discussed in this piece.

   The first was an actual case study of an elementary student who stopped talking in school around the time that she experienced some significant losses at home. Critically, she never stopped talking at home, and so the MTSS Team discussing her case needed to “get past” the inclination of focusing on the home losses. Instead, they needed to look objectively for the true root causes of the student’s behavior.

   We ended this case study by emphasizing that MTSS Teams need to use an effective data-based problem-solving process where the Problem Analysis step is always completed before any clinically-targeted services, supports, strategies, and interventions are determined, linked, and implemented.

   The second “selective mute” variation discussed involves staff who see colleagues demonstrating consistent, persistent, or significantly inappropriate professional or personal interactions with students—and decide to avoid getting involved, hoping that someone else will take that responsibility.

   These include situations where students’ academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral learning, progress, and proficiencies are being directly affected or undermined. . . and/or when these students’ classrooms are negative, unsupportive, demeaning, or toxic.

   Here, we encourage staff (and provide specific steps and strategies) to “step up to the plate” and share their concerns with the individuals who are directly or indirectly hurting their students.

   We extended this discussion by sharing a situation where, as an outside consultant, the consultant needed to have a “courageous conversation” with a Superintendent about a critical student safety issue. . . rather than be selectively mute.

   All of this reinforces the importance of professional, ethical, and personal integrity, and of protecting our students. . . whether from unsound assessment practices that result in faulty intervention recommendations, or from inappropriate staff behaviors that undermine student learning and success, and are potentially harmful and damaging.

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   As always, I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks about the issues or recommendations that we share.

   As we continue to focus on our students’ progress and needed accomplishments, know that there are many Project ACHIEVE resources to help you (see our Website Store:, and that I am always available for a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you to move “to the next level of excellence” from a student, staff, school, or organizational perspective.

   Please feel free to reach out if you would like to begin this process with me.