Selective Mutism: School Refusal

I was a school refuser.

It was during a school meeting that I first heard the term, school refusal. At the time, I felt really misunderstood by teachers that this was how my difficulty in going to school due to my Selective Mutism was being described. I thought that they just presumed that I was refusing to go to school just because I didn’t want to; just like they presumed I was refusing to talk. I thought that they were starting to understand a bit more, but when I heard this term, I thought that all this time they had thought that I was just being lazy and couldn’t be bothered to go to school.

The way I saw it was that I was not refusing to go to school. I was unable to go to school due to my extreme levels of anxiety. It was a daily battle every single day. What the teachers didn’t see was that I did try to get up every day, but the severe anxiety that came over me; the panic attacks, the feeling like I was going to be sick when I even thought about going to school was something that they never saw. I never gave up trying. I wanted to go to school every day. I didn’t want to be stuck inside my house every single day, I wanted to get out, and I wanted to learn! I knew that with having Selective Mutism, it was all the more important to go to school because without an education I would find it a million times harder in the real world. Despite all of this, I couldn’t do it. I had anxiety that was as high as it was every time I tried to speak in school. The longer it went on, the worse I felt about failing to go every single day. So when I heard the words school refusal, I felt like all my struggles were just being completely invalidated and were just being put down to bad behaviour.

Now that I’m older, I know that that’s most likely not what they meant when they referred to my absence from school as school refusal. After researching what it actually means when the term school refusal is used, I now know that it differs from truancy in that truancy is where a student refuses to go to school, not because they feel any anxiety/fear towards school, but rather they feel angry or bored with school. Whereas with school refusal, a student doesn’t go to school due to emotional distress; they usually feel anxiety towards school. The key thing to remember is that whatever the reason a student isn’t going to school, there will be some underlying issue that needs to be dealt with. That reason needs to be discovered in order for them to continue going to school again or to have an alternative education plan put into place e.g. homeschooling. Punishment usually only makes the situation worse.

I want to point out that any advice I give here, is not based on facts or any kind of research. This is purely based on my own personal experiences. What may be true for one person may be different for another.

I’ve seen many parents in the Selective Mutism Facebook groups post about how it’s been a daily battle with getting their children/teens to go to school every morning, I want to give you some do’s and don’ts based on my own personal experiences.

DON’T:

  • Shout at them for not going to school, this usually only makes them even more distressed about the whole situation and will actually make them less likely to want to go to school due to the shouting increasing their anxiety.
  • Tell them that they’re throwing their future away by not going to school. Chances are, they already know this.
  • Tell them that they’re letting you down. Trust me, they already feel guilty about this as it is.
  • Show your frustration. Easier said than done, I know, but they will pick up any stress/frustration that you have which will add to their own stress making it harder for them to go to school.
  • Bribe them with treats, money etc. This will only make them feel worse knowing they won’t receive any treats when they don’t manage to go to school. It will only make them feel like they’re being punished for things that they can’t help.
  • Make a big deal out of it and praise them if they do go to school. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this one when it comes to not praising someone with Selective Mutism for talking; it’s the same sort of thing here.

DO:

  • Try to calm them down. Panic attacks will be common, so learn how to calm them down from their panic attack. Help them to do some diaphragmatic breathing (breathe in slowly through the nose, hold, then out through the mouth slowly and repeat.) Do it with them so they can copy you. If you can help them to do diaphragmatic breathing it will reduce their anxiety. Reducing their anxiety just before school will make them more likely to actually go to school and may even reduce their anxiety throughout the day at school if they learn how to do the diaphragmatic breathing. Some people with Selective Mutism will not be comfortable doing this in front of you, but teaching them these techniques will mean they will be able to do them whilst they are alone.
  • Remain calm. If they see you freaking out over the whole situation, it will only make them do the same.
  • Make sure they have a safe space to go to during school (some sort of quiet place, an empty classroom that’s never really used etc.) so that if it does get too much during the school day, they will have reassurance that they can go somewhere to be alone for a bit if it gets too much. Inform all teachers about this and have a system in place where if at any point they feel like a lesson gets too much, they can leave and go to their safe space without having to ask any teachers if they can go. Some people with SM will feel unable to get up and leave and have everyone looking at them as they walk out, however for others that may not bother them. I was someone who was unable to ever get up and walk out of a class; however it was reassuring to have that system in place.
  • Make sure all teachers are aware of the situation. The last thing you want is for them to have built up all that courage to go to school that day, only for a teacher to punish them for being late. This will only reinforce the problem and will make them less likely to want to go to school the next day.
  • Make sure that all teachers are informed and understand that their Selective Mutism is not a choice. If someone is attempting to force them to talk or attempting to force them to respond by writing stuff down to communicate even if they’re unable to do that, it could create enough anxiety for them to not want to go to school. Check to see if there is a pattern with the days that they are finding it difficult to go to school, it may be that they’re avoiding a certain teacher that they have on that day or even if a lesson itself causes anxiety.
  • Get teachers to keep a close eye during lessons to see if they notice any bullying. Bullying is one of the number one causes of school refusal. Quite often, it is very hard for someone with Selective Mutism to admit that they’re being bullied; therefore it is important for teachers to keep a close eye and put a stop to it if it does happen. This is also another time you should check to see if there is a pattern with the days that they are finding it difficult to go to school as it could be certain people they only have in certain lessons that are doing the bullying.
  • Find ways that they can communicate. It wasn’t until my school refusal had gotten really bad that a teacher suggested that I emailed her to let her know what the reasons were for me finding it difficult to go to school. I found it difficult to write any notes down to her face to face, but I could email her once I got home and I was in the relaxed environment that was my home. This would be a good system to have in place so that if they are having any struggles throughout the day and the teacher doesn’t notice, they can then email them once they get home to inform them about those issues. This would have to be with a favourite teacher that they feel the most comfortable around as there is no point in trying to get them to email a teacher they feel quite intimidated by because they won’t be able to open up as much. Be wary that not everyone with Selective Mutism will be comfortable with this; online social anxiety does exist. It may have to be a case of a bit of trial and error before you find a way that they are able to communicate, but it will be worth it once you do. Another suggestion would be for them to have some sort of notebook where they can write down little bits here and there throughout the week and at the end of the week have a teacher have a look at it. What you do need to know is that if they say that they can’t communicate in a way that you have suggested, it means they really can’t so don’t force them to, you will just have to keep trying until you find a way.
  • Now this one is an if because not all people with Selective Mutism will be comfortable with this. If they are comfortable with it, perhaps writing a letter to the other students to be read out by a teacher about why they find it difficult to speak could help prevent things like bullying and questions such as, “why don’t you talk?” They don’t have to be present in the room at the time if they don’t feel comfortable actually being there whilst the letter is being read out. For some people, this can help a tremendous amount with their recovery since the other students will know what to do and what not to do. Though many people with Selective Mutism are not comfortable with others knowing about their struggles as for them, it can make it harder for them to talk since the expectation for them to speak is removed. I cannot stress this enough, do not do this unless they say they are 100% comfortable with it.

There are many more things that you can do to help someone with Selective Mutism to overcome school refusal. These are just some of the things that I would advise based on personal experience.

Lastly, whilst it is important to help someone to get through their struggles with going to school, above all else it is important to get to the root of the bigger problem – the Selective Mutism. The Selective Mutism will most likely be one of the biggest causes of their school refusal. If getting professionals involved is not an option or if that has been tried but has failed, then with resources such as the Selective Mutism Resource Manual by Maggie Johnson & Alison Wintgens it is possible to help someone to overcome SM. However, for this to work, it will require co-operation of all people involved. Failure for anyone to co-operate will only slow the process of overcoming SM down.

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3 thoughts on “Selective Mutism: School Refusal

  1. Leanne, I have a question. Do you feel as if your Selective Mutism puts you in danger? I ask because I was raised by my grandmother to be quiet and still. It was a real difficulty in school and still is to some extent (answer the phone? almost never.) One time I was in a self-defense class and we were expected to scream for help. Well, I have to honestly say, that’d never happen. I’d be dead before I even made a single sound. It seems ridiculous that I wouldn’t be able to make a loud noise to save my life, but I really don’t think I could. So, I was wondering if you felt the same way, and if so, would you recommend carrying some sort of alarm for safety? And thank you for the article. I’ll bet this is something few of us are aware of.

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    • Honestly, yes I think Selective Mutism does make you extremely vulnerable and runs a greater risk of putting you in danger since you can’t ask for help. For me, I always had this huge fear of what if something happened to me and no one was around and I couldn’t scream for help? For me, I find that bringing my mobile phone with me everywhere I go helps me to feel a lot more at ease. It helps give me reassurance that if anything does happen to me and I can’t scream for help that I can use that to get help, even if I didn’t feel able to call someone, I could at least text someone. I always get pretty panicky if my phone battery runs out or if I forget it and for that reason it is the ONE thing that I always make sure to check to make sure I’ve got with me every single time I go out. If some sort of alarm helps to give you reassurance then I don’t see why not. Anything that could bring attention to you if you do get into any kind of danger and can’t shout for help would definitely be a good idea to have. If you were to ever find you were in a situation where you needed help from any of the emergency services, you can actually text them if you don’t feel able to phone them. If you Google it, you would be able to find out how to set it up for your area. You don’t have to feel scared about being put in any kind of danger, there are so many coping mechanisms that you can use to help you out. 🙂 Thank you! 🙂 No, not many people are aware of these things which is why I’m working so hard to raise awareness for it! 🙂

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  2. Hi Leanne, I only just stumbled across your story whilst trying to research for my son. Can I just say a big thank you for sharing this as it is spot on with my boy as I’m sure it is with many others. The voices of his parents and our differing opinions have been heard but not our sons because he can not. I have been battling so hard to prove that his school refusal is because he CAN NOT, not because he WILL NOT. So refreshing to hear from a SM sufferer instead of a so called “specialist” for a change. Again, thank you and well done!! 🙂

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