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My Child Is Not Talking In School. What Should I Do?

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

It can be worrying when your child, who is ordinarily sociable and talkative, becomes withdrawn and untalkative in a school environment.

  • She’s not usually like this.

  • She is totally not shy at home. Is something going on at school that’s making her anxious?

  • How come she doesn’t respond to any of her friends when they talk to her?

  • Is she an outcast at school? I can’t bear the thought of her being left out.

Thoughts like these might run through your head as you try to grapple with why your child is not talking in school. Regina Phang, Deputy General Manager of MindChamps Allied Care, shares about the most common causes and how teachers and parents can help kids who will not talk in school.

Reasons Why a Child Won’t Talk in School

According to Regina, there are a number of scenarios involving children who choose not to talk in class.

Scenario 1 Your child has always been chatty – at home and in school. Then suddenly she is going through a period where she is more withdrawn and refuses to talk in school.

Causes to look out for:

  • Social environment Review her social environment, and whether any bullying or friendship problems are causing anxiety. Check to see if there have been any changes in the school routine or staff (e.g. new teachers in her school). Sometimes when certain routines change drastically, a child needs more assurance.

  • Issues at home Sometimes the cause is due to something brewing at home. Children sometimes pick up on parental conflict or stress at home, and thus find it difficult to cope.

  • Academic stress Or perhaps your child is experiencing a huge difficulty following the academic teaching. For some kids, the transition from K1 to K2 can be quite tough (e.g. more spelling), so the pressure might affect their performance and self-esteem.

  • A significant event at home or in school Investigate whether any humiliating episode or significant event happened at home or in school that has impacted your child’s self-esteem. Regina shared that there had been cases where children did not talk anymore after a particular incident where they embarrassed themselves in school (e.g. an older child who peed in the classroom or accidentally dirtied herself or himself in class, who were then made fun of by classmates).

  • Physical illness Another possible cause could be a physical illness. A trip to the doctor would eliminate this cause.

Scenario 2 Since day one of class, your child has never spoken in school before. However, outside of school, he or she talks and communicates normally.

Cause to look out for:

  • Selective Mutism According to the Selective Mutism Centre, “Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterised by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.”“If this applies to your child, it is a cause for concern that needs to be brought to a psychologist to eliminate Selective Mutism,” said Regina. “Selective mutism can improve, and with a psychologist’s help, the child will start to speak up and perform normally in a school environment.”

How to help a child who won’t talk in School?

“Parents and teachers need to be patient and understanding,” said Regina. “Give the child a lot of space, but also don’t leave the child alone. The teacher still needs to engage the child without singling him or her out. Both parents and teachers should let the child take the lead in deciding whether he or she wants to talk or not.”

What NOT to do:

  • Don’t pressure the child to talk and keep asking him or her to speak up. (E.g. “Your friend is talking to you. Why aren’t you responding?” or “Do you know you are making mummy and daddy very worried by not talking?”)

  • Don’t pick on the child to answer questions openly in class, in a group setting.

  • Don’t make the child say “Please” and “Thank you” every time. While it’s important to teach manners, don’t expect or push the child to say it all the time because it may increase social anxiety.

  • Don’t criticise, scold, or dole out any punishment related to talking.

  • For teachers: Don’t tell the rest of the class that this child is different or has special needs. This will bring unwanted attention to the child.

  • Don’t bring to the child’s attention that something is going on with him or her and that he or she needs a lot of help. This will make the child feel more deflated and withdrawn. “The whole point is to treat the child as normal,” Regina said.

What to do:

  • Parents and teachers should praise any effort the child makes to talk. If the child comes to the teacher and says, “Can I go to the toilet?” the teacher can reply, “That’s good. I’m glad you asked me about this.” Whenever the child makes an attempt to talk, make it a positive experience.

  • Teachers can encourage the children to play together in class and give gentle reminders such as, “Could she just sit with you all and be a part of it?” Facilitate the child to sit still in the presence of his or her peers, but do not force him or her to talk. If there is a classmate who is especially friendly, then they can be buddied up. “Sometimes the ‘buddy system’ works for certain children to encourage them to participate,” Regina said.

  • Parents should be role models at home by talking about themselves and their own feelings. Talk about your day first, including the high and low moments (but make sure the details are age-appropriate for your child to hear so that he or she can relate better).Then say to your child, “Can you tell me about your day? What made you happy today?”

  • Parents can ask their children to draw if they do not wish to talk. Sit beside your child and draw together. To get your child to open up, gently suggest drawing things that are a part of their daily life, such as scenarios in school.Take note of what colours your child chooses (e.g. bright and colourful or dark and gloomy). Is there any violence or disturbing detail in the pictures? Just quietly observe all of these so that later, you can share this information with a professional when you do seek help. This gives a small glimpse of understanding about what your child is experiencing in school.

  • Write a simple letter or love message to your child, and ask, “Why don’t you write back to mommy/daddy?” Sharing your thoughts in writing can increase the intimacy in your relationship. If the parent shares the child’s writing with teachers or professionals, do so without letting the child know, as it would break their trust.

  • If your child really refuses to engage in anything, do not force.Instead, give your child a tight hug and say, “I know you are not ready to talk now and that’s okay. I am here for you when you are ready.”

  • Read storybooks about social anxiety or worries with your child.For instance, Maya’s Voice is a relatable book about a little girl who experiences selective mutism when she starts school, and who eventually learns to overcome it. David and the Worry Beast: Helping Children Cope with Anxiety shows kids how problems can be less scary when they are shared with parents and trusted adults who can help.

Regina said, “The whole point is to let your child understand that it is okay to feel not so good about things and to have worries. But then what is the solution? In storybooks there are different types of outcomes when the character learns to cope.”
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