We Broke the Rules: Homeschooling a Child With Selective Mutism

Guest Post by Kelly Harbaugh from Tabitha’s Team Inc

When my daughter was a toddler in daycare, her caregiver, Miss Ann, always marveled at how “good” she was. Quiet and mild-mannered, my daughter was labeled “the little angel.” Angel? She was quite skilled at the normal toddler tantrums at home.

As we progressed to the pre-school years, My daughter had the same teacher for 2 years in a row. She loved Miss Amanda, and always had a big hug for her. But never words. However, when Amanda came to our home to babysit, she was floored by the outgoing chatterbox who danced and giggled in front of her. She was in so much disbelief that she called her assistant teacher to witness my daughter’s vocal chords.

Kindergarten came, and still no words for her teacher. Not even a whisper.

After much prayer, counsel from a friend, a talk with my pediatrician, and observance by the school psychologist, it was determined that my daughter had selective mutism.

Selective Mutism (SM) is a childhood anxiety disorder. When a child with SM experiences high anxiety, her body copes by shutting down speech. A child with selective mutism is usually quiet in public and social situations, sometimes even acting as if her body is frozen. However, at home and around family members, the child is lively and talkative, sometimes even bossy.

The most important thing to remember when working with a child who has SM is that selective mutism is a failure to speak, not a refusal to speak. A child with SM desperately wants to talk in social situations but cannot find the ability.

Treatment for selective mutism includes removing the expectation for speech (which increases anxiety), teaching the child skills to lower anxiety, and involving the child in frequent social interaction. Although there is no scientific research behind it, the general recommendation is to not homeschool the child who has selective mutism. On the surface, this makes sense. A child cannot learn to function socially if they are not involved in social situations.

However, those of you who homeschool know that social interaction is not about school. Although we had great cooperation from our public school, we made the decision to start homeschooling our daughter last year. This is what we found:

My daughter made tremendous social progress in the classroom. But the classroom just became another protected environment like the home. She was comfortable enough to talk when she really needed to in class, but she still could not interact with an adult in real life. I believe that school records that show the progress of a child with SM are incomplete. They leave out what happens at the restaurant, the bank, the store, etc. This is the real test of social progress.

Within the first two weeks of homeschooling, my daughter had some amazing real life accomplishments. She spoke to our neighbor in the yard. She told a brand new Sunday School teacher her name on the first day of class. She ordered her own drink at the softball field. For the first time in 5 years of schooling, we were seeing social progress outside of school.

Homeschooling has allowed my daughter to experience a wider variety of social interaction. She is with me as we run errands through town, paying bills, banking, or shopping. She was with me when I had to go to the garage and negotiate a car repair. She followed me through the process of voting in a local election. She is seeing everyday life and standing beside me as we deal with strangers. Life is not made up of 18 kids her own age who have been taught about her condition.

We still have a long way to go, but the progress is obvious. She recently attended her bests friend’s birthday party. When I arrived to pick her up, I was told that she was the life of the party, laughing and telling several stories about her family and her recent vacation. Her friend’s mother remarked, “I think homeschooling has been really good for her. It seems to have brought her out of her shell.”

I think so too.

special needs
Note: If you are the homeschooling parent of a special needs child, I would love to have you tell your story here. Please use the contact form to drop me a note.

Thank you so much to Kelly for guest posting and sharing your story.

29 thoughts on “We Broke the Rules: Homeschooling a Child With Selective Mutism”

  1. Kelly: Wow what an interesting challenge to deal with! I know how you feel– the school will ALWAYS side with itself and against homeschooling, particularly with a special needs child. I took my son out of school to homeschool him MUCH to the disagreement of the school that he would “suffer socially”. Quite the contrary, he is doing very WELL socially and isn’t being bullied on a daily basis, which was much of his social trouble in the first place. What they forget is what the special ed teachers will always SAY… “I wish I had more TIME with your child… If I could JUST teach your child one on one I could…” Well, WE CAN. Hooray for homeschooling!

  2. Kelly, thank you for sharing our story. I, too, have experienced selective mutism with my own child after a traumatic event. It was through close work with a specialist that we were able to lower the anxiety level and move forward. Our professional used EMDR on my daughter and the results were phenomenal. While we still have certain situations that create high levels of anxiety, it is through being homeschooled and in an environment that is loving, nurturing and protective that my daughter has thrived and flourished.

    Homeschool is not the enemy. It may actually be part of the success!

    1. Hi Sara,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and post a comment. It is nice to know that we can love, nurture, and protect our children in a different way when we homeschool them.


  3. Thanks for the comments! Dawn, I hate that you had so much resistance in making your decision, but I know it happens. In our case, the school was very supportive both while we were there and after we left (we had a really sweet principal and the two of us still communicate at times).

    However, in general those who treat selective mutism recommend staying in the classroom. Dr. Shipmann-Bluhm (I hope I am spelling her name correctly) is a specialist in this area, and I appreciate the way she gave her answer to a parent who asked on her website. She first gave the disclaimer that homeschooling was not very common where she lived and that there is no research about this, so the reader should remember that it is “not scientific” but “just what she thinks.” Then she advised against homeschooling, but only because of her concern about social interaction. It was very clear that the answer really hasn’t been explored.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Thank you so much for your guest post. Thank you for sharing your struggles (and triumphs) with me and my readers.


  4. One of the reasons I homeschool my own children is my own experience with selective mutism and ADHD. The classroom isn’t an appropriate setting for children who need more time and flexibility to grow into social interaction. I needed the confidence that came from having my family close by for many, many years longer than most children do. I’m far too tired to go into it right now, but suffice it to say that SM can be grown out of, and ADHD is not a disease. It’s a personality type that doesn’t thrive at a desk! (my opinion. YMMV) All children have special needs. Some just happen to be less compatible with the system we’ve got. :0)

    1. Hi Cindy,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment. I would love to hear your story and if you ever need a place to tell it, you are welcome to here.


  5. Cindy,
    It sounds like you actually dealt with this yourself growing up. I would love to read more about your experience. If you ever write about it, tweet me or something:) As parents we are always wondering what it feels like from the inside and what our children need.

    1. I’m sure I’ll write about it eventually. It’s a little bit painful to think about, as you can imagine, but I do have a lot to say, if I can just make myself do it. :-)

  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Kelly. I’ve considered homeschooling my daughter, who has SM, and is in 2nd grade now. Bella has made tremendous progress outside of school, but is stuck when it comes to the classroom. I was advised not to homeschool for socialization purposes as well as the concern that it would cause Bella to be more dependent on me. But my experience has been that she does very well in the summer when we’re together- much better than she does while in school! I’m so discouraged by how institutionalized the kids are in school, and the lack of creativity in schools. It’s a hard decision though- I don’t want to set her up for failure later on when it is time for her to enter the school system.

    1. Hi Dria,

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it. When your child has special needs and you are making the decision to homeschool, there is so much that needs to be factored into the equation. It is not a simple decision. Let me know if there is any way that I can help.


  7. I too have a daughter with selective mutism and although the school is trying hard to “accomodate” us and help us, I have been considering homeschooling. This post really touched me because I know the joy you must have felt as she began to speak to people outside of the usual. Everyday is a battle sending my daughter to first grade, not knowing if she will be ok, since she has no voice there, and has never spoken once in the school, to any children or teachers. I would love to correspond more and follow your journey, and most likely will start a blog about ours. Thank-you!

    1. Ruby,
      I’m glad to know this was helpful. I remember trying to find information about SM and homeschooling, and really found none. So my intention is to start the conversation. If you move forward with homeschooling, a blog is a great idea; the more of us there are sharing, the more information that will be available to searching parents.

  8. We have been homeschooling my daughter with SM as well. This is our 3rd yr. My daughter has made some improvements but not as much as I would of liked her to. She will still not talk to any strangers but will now talk to family members and people she knows really really well. We recently had a baby and made the decision to send our 2 daughters back to school to try it out as its really overwhelming to school them at home right now. I feel really bad for sending them back to school but not sure what to do at this point. I would love to follow everyones stories on this. I would also like to know what things you are doing at home to help your SM child. We were doing speech therapy and play therapy at one point but our insurance said it wasnt medically needed so stop paying for it. She can get this service through public school if we keep her in. I am curious to know if anyone else has there child do speech therapy and if it helps? Would love to hear more on this topic.

  9. I am so happy to find this website. My daughter is 8 years old and suffering with
    SM. She attended public school kindergarten through 2nd grade. The staff there had no idea about SM. My daughter shut down totally in school. She would not speak to anyone and would not even ask to go to the bathroom. She would cry at night, not wanting to go to sleep because of the dread of school the next morning. I had to really pray about what to do. I am now homeschooling her and we love it!!! She still has difficulty but we take it one step at a time. I do get frustrated with the school system…they have no idea what to do for your child. They made me feel dumb at times as if I were babying her and needed to let her grow up. THEY HAVE NO IDEA!!!

  10. I have twin girls in Kindergarten at present, but I’m homeschooling them starting this summer and from then on until they can find their voices to stand up for themselves. The school system has been great. We were fortunate enough to have a fresh out of college Speech Therapist that actually diagnosed them in Preschool. I found a very prominent Dr. who specializes in SM treatment and we’ve been going to her since May 2011. The girls have made HUGE strides. Our Dr. has coordinated therapies with the school’s speech therapist and so my two work on “being brave” three times a week in Speech.
    I’m taking them out of school because of the other kids bullying my daughters. Not all the kids are like that but there’s always a few “bad apples” and those apples have forced my decision. I always wanted to homeschool my children since before they were born, but then you meet your children. What I wanted might not be what they need. I border on being pretty introverted and so I thought I wouldn’t be capable of the socialization they needed if I homeschool them. Now I’m willing to break out of my shell as well and really try to get them around other people and kids.
    I don’t know what our journey has in store for us, but God keeps calling my heart to it and my children deserve to feel safe and free from the anxiety that others invoke. God has us and I know He’s got something good in store for us if I only be willing to be the tool and listen and talk with others who’ve gone before me.
    Thank you for putting this blog together and for sharing your stories.

  11. I agree, school isn’t about social gatherings, it’s to learn. Our daughter too was under so pressure to talk by her teacher that she didn’t talk the whole year. We decided that she was being labeled in so many categories that they wanted to hold her back because she didn’t talk she did show them that she knew her letters and numbers. I knew she knew them and that wasn’t enough. So, we decided to homeschool our daughter too and that’s one of the best things about homeschooling, is that my daughter no longer is feeling pressured to talk and we find her opening up more in environments that didn’t speak at before.

  12. Hello Jennifer,
    Thank you for your response. We’ve been officially homeschooling now for 15 days. I think we’re gonna like it. I think I can tell a difference in the girls’ attitude and the level of self confidence. It’s still a struggle to get them to greet anyone outside the house, but just this week they were in the neighbors pool and talking in front of SEVERAL people, very quietly but still, present. I still think this is going to be a long process, I doubt they’ll ever aspire for the spotlight, but I also believe we’re on the right track.
    We’re also doing a Olympic unit study/lap book. Homeschooling has been so much fun and I’m enjoying the time spent with my kiddos. Hope you’re well and doing the same. Enjoy the rest of your summer.

  13. It’s really great to read all of these comments that are still coming in. I love to hear everyone encouraging each other.

    It has been almost 2 years since I wrote this post, and it has given me a marker to see how far my daughter has come. She is not “anxiety-free.” However, she no longer meets the diagnosis for SM.

    She can carry on a conversation with the server at the restaurant. She likes to sit with the adults when we have company and be part of the conversation. She is a great softball and basketball player, a talented artist, and an aspiring veterinarian. She is finding and doing the things that she loves

    Jennifer, your story touched me because I remember a couple of people in her school who wanted to put her in a developmental reading class just because she couldn’t talk. My daughter LOVES to read, and the library can’t seem to keep up with her need for new books. In her first standardized test after homeschooling, she tested 2 grades ahead on “verbal expression.” :)

    Just remember that these changes happen gradually; be patient. That’s the whole point of homeschooling – take the pressure off and let them develop at their own pace. It will take some confidence as those who do not understand will judge you, but YOU are the mom.

  14. So glad to see your last reply. I’m a little late in getting here, but read it nonetheless.
    We’ve been homeschooling now since July and although I wouldn’t call them chatty Kathy’s, I can see their progress. It’s slow but steady and that’s all I’m aspiring for. It’s going to take years of making them feel safe, but their mine and I’ve always been willing to make the investment. Love homeschooling, it’s been such a blessing. Have a good holiday season and congratulations on your daughter’s continued progress.

  15. My 6yr old son has a problem speaking at school. In K they almost didn’t let him pass to 1st because she couldn’t test him cause he wouldn’t speak and all test were verbal. He stepped up towards the end and said enough to get passed. Now his 1st grade teacher is not as accepting. She doesn’t like that he won’t speak to the other kids. She even gave him a mark down in citizenship because of it. He had a paper he was to do and he didn’t do it. The letter from the teacher said “I gave him two hours to finish this and he woudl not do it.” When i spoke to him he said he didn’t know what to do. When I told the teacher this she said “if he doesn’t understand something he needs to use his words, I will not do it for him.” He just can’t speak at school. I’ve even been there with him and he won’t talk to anyone. My only option at this point is to homeschool. I’ve prayed without ceasing and that is the only thing that makes sense. I’m terrified, but I know God has a bigger plan. Thank you for your post. It has inspired me. God bless you!

  16. Hello Kelly,

    We found out almost a year ago that my 8 year old daughter has SM. I always knew she was shy but my husband is shy as well as many members of his family. So I never thought much about it. Even when he started kindergarten I just thought well this is all new for her and she would be more adjusted to school next year. Until last year when my she was in 1st grade and still did not speak. Her teacher was a close family friend of ours and she still wouldn’t speak to her at school. And my Mother was a 3rd grade teacher at this same school and when my daughter would see her she would get excite and smile but never would she speak to her. This is her Nana who she sees everyday and talks to get all the time….except at school. That’s when I knew there must be something else besides “just shy”. After speaking to get doctor and a therapist she was diginosted with Selective Mutism. What a relief to know what was going on now we can begin actually helping her (because everything we were doing before was wrong!). She started therapy last summer. I was told to not homeschool her. That would really delay any progress she made over the summer. But I was so worried about her because before we knew about her SM, we had just moved into a new house so the next school year she would be at a new school and I was expecting another child. So a lot of change all at once. I wated to do what wa best for her so I listened to the therapist and sent her to school. I talked to her principal before she started 2nd grade. He was wonderful! Her therapist sent him a letter that recommend certain qualities in a teacher that would be best for my daughter. And I do belove she got the best teacher who researched and learned all she could about SM so she would know the right way to handle my daughter. Her principal and teacher had a special open house just for her (so she wouldn’t be so overwhelmed with the large crowd of kids and parents). She got a private tour of the school and meet every teacher. It was wonderful and when we got in the car after that, my daughter said that makes me feel so much better (remember she was changing schools and was VERY anxious about it). This school has been good for her. A lot of her fears about the new school disappeared within the jest week. And she has made many new friends. Even been to a few sleepovers!!! Which is huge! But even with a wonderful teacher and a very supportive school she still has made no progress in talking in school. She will speak to her teacher if it is completely nessacary but it’s a very, very soft whisper. She does a a group of girls she is friends with and they play together (she is not ever left out) but she has not actually talked to any of them! I have ha such a heavy heart lately because I feel like she should e making some progress. And all I hear is do not homeschool. But God has layed it on my heart. So tonight I thought I would google homeschooling a child with SM. The first thing that pops up is this page. When I read your post tears filled my eyes! I praised God because this is exactly what I needed to read! My daughter sounds so much like your daughter! She is so smart, LOVES to read, she loves dogs and any animal really and wants to be a vertinartian one day as well. And as my daughter says “Art is her favorite sport”! She is a great little artist already! I never expect for her to be “talkative” or be the “life of the party”. But my goal is for her to be able to carry on a simple conversation with someone new in a new place. It breaks my heart to think of all the anxiety she feels daily. I have been praying so hard about this decision. I ask God to please show me what to do and then I found this article! So I want to say THANK YOU! I realize this article is 2 years old but I wanted you to know that you have changed our lives! I have decided that next year I will start homeschooling my daughter and I pray that she will have great success like your daughter has! Praise God for all of your daughters accomplishments! I know this will be an adjustment for all of us but my children are worth it. Children are blessing not a chore! I am excited to get started and if you have any advice it would be appreciated! Sorry for the long story but you have no idea what impact you have made in our lives! May God bless you and your family!!


  17. I chose to homeschool long before I realized we had SM going on. My child with SM is the only child I can’t connect with to teach. Knowledge of SM is brand new. I’m hoping to get some good advice from therapists on how to move forward in the education department. I love home school. It’s my favorite. But I can’t connect in the way I feel I should.

  18. I am so encouraged to find your blog because I have a daughter with selective mutism and I am considering homeschooling her next year. I would love to find out more about what has worked for you since you originally posted this message and any suggestions you may have for me just starting out. It would be great to have a way to connect with others who are homeschooling children with SM. Thanks so much!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top