Teaching a Child with Selective Mutism

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Teaching a Child with Selective Mutism

Selective mutism is a form of anxiety disorder where children or adolescents fear and are unable to speak in specific social settings e.g. at school or in public areas despite being able to speak in other settings, such as at home when the child is relaxed .


My first piano lesson with my selectively mute student was intriguing. He was silent throughout the entire lesson, but was able to follow all my instructions perfectly, ultimately playing a simple tune on the piano. His mom did not label his condition, but she did say that he was very chatty at home. It confirmed my suspicion that he was selectively mute.

Develop a Nonverbal Communication System

In subsequent lessons, I worked hard to develop a nonverbal communication system, encouraging him to point, gesture, and write in place of speaking. This helped tremendously in breaking the ice and building a strong teacher-student relationship. He didn’t feel pressured to speak, while I was able to ascertain if he was actually learning and understanding our lesson.

Me: How many counts are there in a minim?
Student: *silent*
Me: You can show me the number of counts using your fingers
Student: *Puts up 2 fingers*

Me: What note is this?
Student: *silent*
Me: Are you able to find the alphabet on the page?
Student: *Points to letter E somewhere on the page*

Allow for “Chit-Chat”

When it comes to teaching special needs students, I believe in encouraging them to express themselves. In the case of my selectively mute student, whenever he displays signs of wanting to communicate, I will put down the music book and we will have a “chat” (still mostly non-verbal).

In one of our recent lessons, he was scrambling to find a pencil to write in our notebook, asking me if I can create a Roblox account to play with him. I felt so out of touch because I had no idea what Roblox was, but I was so happy with the encounter because he was definitely opening up to me and seeing me as a friend!

In another lesson, I put up two fingers and asked him “Are you scared (while pointing to my index finger)? Or are you shy (while pointing to my middle finger)?” He responded by pointing to my middle finger — he was shy. I was thankful that he even answered such a personal question.

Don’t Rush Things

From my experience, rushing or forcing the child to speak often backfires and could potentially damage the relationship that I have worked so hard to build with my student.

Instead of asking, begging or forcing my student to speak, I let him be the leader in deciding how he wants to communicate with me.

Always Making Progress

Today, after 8 months of lessons together, he is able to say hello and bye – but still remains silent during our lesson. Whenever he wants to tell me something, he scrambles to find a pencil and scribble it down in our notebook. Occasionally, he gets frustrated that I am slow in picking up what he’s trying to write or draw, that he blurts out the word (an achievement, I believe!).

Ultimately, I’m glad that we’ve been making progress, not just in our music lessons, but also on social fronts. While my primary role is still to be a music and piano teacher, I believe that music can serve as a platform for me to build confidence in my students, which they then take with them outside of my classroom.