A phenomenon we observe quite often in Shanghai (a lot more frequently here than “back home”) is selective mutism. This is almost always a method of coping with feelings of anxiety.  The saddest thing about selective mutism is the other, highly avoidable problems it can bring on for the children who contend with it.  Parents and teachers commonly misinterpret selective mutism as a sign of defiance. An initially manageable problem can, over time, become a very serious impediment to academic achievement.  We at The Essential Learning Group see this on a frequent basis and can address it quite effectively.

Alex (not his real name) never wanted to come to school.  Every morning at the same time, he would resist quite strenuously.  In class, he would present himself as a well-mannered, intelligent child.  Presented with situations where he would meet somebody new, particularly an adult, he would become painfully shy, would refuse to speak, and would show significant signs of distress if his mother were to leave his presence.

In fact, when I met him for the first time, it was necessary to negotiate a compromise of sorts.  He was so anxious about being separated from his mother that, when it came time for me to speak with her confidentially, we came to an arrangement by which he sat outside with the door cracked, but not so near that he could hear the details of our conversation.
The reason that this satisfied him, and indeed the secret to a successful intervention in Alex’s case –and many others—is to offer him an increased sense of control.   The more he believes that he is being consulted, the better basis we have for expanding treatment and the less need he feels to take the extreme measure of keeping silent.

Every step of our work together was negotiated.  It would always be up to him whether he would participate.  It was acceptable to insist that his mother join for sessions.  It was acceptable to sit in silence, as long as he sat for the full session.  It was crucial that nobody compel Alex.  It was crucial that he discover the necessary self-assurance on his own terms.

We worked extensively on giving Alex more sensitive tools for acknowledging and regulating his emotions.  We used traffic signals as an extended metaphor for how he was feeling.  We used a green light to signify that Alex was comfortable, a yellow light when he was beginning to feel uneasy and a red when he was highly uncomfortable.  The better he got at identifying the dangerous, yellow-light moments, the more empowered he was to deal with his feelings differently, and the less inclined to refuse to speak. Relaxation exercises were used to learn how to deal with the upcoming feeling of anxiety and discomfort.

As time went on, Alex would permit his mother to sit outside as we had our sessions.  Sometimes, having asked her to join, he would accept her absence in exchange for a treat of some kind, if we were to go and play in the OT room.

He made quick progress in one-on-one training as we gradually asked him to extend himself further and further.  Eventually, it was time to introduce him into a group setting.   Alex’s newly developed skills faced a real test in the first session, and initially he was very upset by the changes in his surroundings.  With some care, and some reassurance, though, he was able to return to the group, and was doing very, very well by just his second session in a group setting.  The progress Alex has made in a short time shows what children can accomplish when they are treated with proper patience and understanding.


Karlijn Jacobs-de Hoon

Karlijn Jacobs-de Hoon, M.Sc.

Global Outreach Director

Karlijn was an independent practitioner in the Netherlands before coming to Shanghai in 2010. Her extensive knowledge of children’s development makes her a valuable resource to parents in determining how best to address their children’s learning needs.