Not talking

Question: My 3 and a half year old does not speak at preschool, unless directly spoken to and often then only whispers or shrugs, nods, etc. Her teacher has expressed concern to me. My child is very bright and is definitely learning things at school but is not expressing what she learns. Is this normal? What can I do to help her talk more at school? Cathy

Answer: This would be an excellent time to observe your daughter’s language use in a variety of situations. Is school the only place where she is less expressive? Is she chattering away at home, in other public places, with friends and their families in their homes? How do her language skills compare to a variety of children her age? If your daughter is new to school, the problem may just be with the initial transition. If the behavior is limited to a few people, your daughter may just be overwhelmed with certain types of personalities that are new to her.

I think you can be reassured that her intellectual development is strong and, if there is a concern about her language development, she is at a wonderful age to receive help.

There is a language disability called “selective mutism” whereby children choose not respond verbally in public situations but are quite talkative at home with family members. In school, they may even choose to speak with a classmate who then conveys their message to the teacher or, as you described, they may respond in a very limited way when directly approached. The definition of selective mutism is “a persistent failure (not refusal) to speak in select social settings”. According to the Social Anxiety Webring website, children with selective mutism have a desire to speak but cannot do so because of anxiety, fear, shyness, or embarrassment. Children may whisper or use nonverbal gestures to communicate. The behavior is usually identified by the child’s school and usually before 5 years of age. If you think this describes your daughter’s situation, there are numerous websites with more information. Just search under “selective mutism”. I would also schedule a meeting with your daughter’s teacher to discuss further her observations and concerns. She is a valuable person in your daughter’s life.

Keep in mind that your daughter should not be forced to talk. It will only add to her discomfort and, possibly, to withdrawal. Your goal, as well as the goal of supportive adults around her, is to encourage her to build a speaking repertoire step by step. Practice with one word answers at home and build to longer and longer responses. Lastly, monitor your expectations and try not to rush her progress. Time and patience are your greatest allies.

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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