Friday 27 April 2018

Dear David Coleman: My son won't speak a word to his teacher at preschool

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Photo posed by models
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from clinical psychologist and parenting expert David Coleman for parents of a three-year-old who won't speak to his pre-school teacher and on whether or not a four-year-old's fetish for both his grannies feet is a cause for concern.

Q. My son has just turned three. His playschool teacher is concerned that he does not talk with other staff and only chats with other children outdoors. We have noticed at home, that he speaks with us (his parents) and his grandparents. However he refuses to communicate (verbally/nonverbally) with his aunts/uncles and other adults or older children. The playschool teachers want us to address this issue with him but we're not sure what to do? He has a good level of oral language for his age when he does speak and follows commands.

David replies: While it may seem very worrisome that your child isn't talking in preschool, it is quite unlikely that it is a long-term problem. In most cases, children will, over time, start to speak fully  in all situations.

'Selective mutism' is the term used to describe the circumstances where a child will speak in certain situations but not in others. Sometimes it is just because of a mild social anxiety and once a child settles into a new environment they choose to speak more. Sometimes the "not speaking" can be very ingrained and long standing.

I have met children, over the years, who have experienced selective mutism and there seems to be little to predict which children will have a short-lived mutism that resolves with little help, and those who have a longer-term struggle to speak.

I remember one client I met with when she was 11, who only ever spoke to her family at home, and only when there was nobody else around. She never spoke a word to me, throughout my sessions with her. Even when I met her and her mum, at a secondary school event, years later, she still chose not to speak to me, despite just having been chatting away with friends.

Selective mutism is, usually, more than just shyness and is considered an anxiety disorder. It is often seen in conjunction with a separation anxiety, where the child may be very clingy to a parent at preschool, or school drop-off.

The fact that your son chats away to the other boys and girls in the preschool, albeit when he is away from the classroom and his teacher, is a good thing. The environment of the preschool then, is not fully associated, for him, with anxiety and an unwillingness to talk.

It is easy to see how selective mutism can develop for a child. Imagine a common situation, like a child being asked a direct question by a strange adult. The child freezes, scared to respond. Their parent or sibling steps in to answer the question, to relieve their embarrassment that their child won't answer. The child's avoidance of talking is subtly reinforced by the parent taking over and they can relax when the pressure to speak is removed.

This can create a cycle for the child such that they learn not to speak to relieve their anxiety.

So, if your son's anxiety is not particularly acute, his selective mutism may well resolve itself if he is in an emotionally warm and supportive environment in the preschool.

To help it along, you and the preschool teacher could work together, to increase his sense of security and comfort in the preschool, while also reinforcing any positive signs of communication that your son makes with his teacher.

Although you mention he makes no non-verbal communication, it is likely that he is communicating something with his face, body and movement. You could ask his teacher to acknowledge any smiles, nods or turning to attend her that he makes. Her warm acknowledgement might encourage him to engage more with her. Then, as he begins to associate her with this positivity, he might be encouraged further for actually speaking.

Your aim, in conjunction with his teacher, is to make him feel good about any direct communication with her, showing him that any anxiety he felt does decrease, even when he doesn't avoid speaking.

You may find that working with a psychologist or speech and language therapist, who can observe him in preschool and make targeted suggestions about opportunities to reinforce positive communication, might also help to move things along.

If you have parenting queries for David Coleman please email Please note that David can not reply to individual correspondence.

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