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.