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Dr. Sylvia Rimm


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Chatterbox Won't Talk at School


Q. I have a 5-year-old with selective mutism, and she's in her second year of preschool. Academically she was ready for kindergarten, but we put her in preschool again because of her selective mutism. I was wondering whether you know anything about this. If you do, what methods have been used to get other children to speak at school? My daughter is quite the bigmouth at home and with family members, but she won't say anything to other classmates or teachers in school. She loves school and wants to go. She only smiles at her classmates and teacher. Any information would be appreciated.

A. Your daughter's selective mutism should be evaluated by a psychologist, but I can give you several helpful suggestions in addition to the professional help you should be sure to procure. When young children get into the habit of absolutely not speaking up in particular environments, usually other children and adults begin talking for the child and talking about the child's not speaking. My advice would be for the teacher to make a simple comment, such as, "'Jane' can talk for herself, and she will when she's ready." That often can be enough to dispense with the continual talk about her silence in school. Then the teacher can have a private conversation with "Jane" to explain that she recognizes "Jane" can talk and will soon and that she's agreed to give "Jane" a sticker every time "Jane" speaks up, even if she speaks up quietly. Then "Jane" can save her stickers for a prize.

At home, similar adult and sibling discussion about "Jane" not talking undoubtedly is taking place.

If you stop discussing the issue with Grandma, friends or others within "Jane's" hearing and instead comment positively on her making friends and enjoying her work at school, it will help "Jane" to think of herself as a normal child. You also can offer a special prize when she begins talking. With time, "Jane" is likely to chatter as much in school as she does at home. Everyone will forget that she used to refuse to talk.

The reason it's important to see a psychologist for an evaluation is to determine whether there are underlying issues that initiated or are continuing the problem. It's also important not to hold a child back for not talking if her abilities and achievement are appropriate. Unfortunately, it's difficult to evaluate a selective mute's intellectual competence unless she's willing to speak in a testing environment.

For a free newsletter about the principles of parenting or about referential talk, send a large self-addressed, stamped envelope to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094, or read "The Foundational Principles of Parenting" at

Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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