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Dear Parents of Children with Selective Mutism
 
I hope you had a great summer, and that your children experienced a happy, calm, and summer rich in new adventures, with family, friends, and with new friends in their lives.
I would like to talk about the upcoming start of a new academic year. Some families are still on vacation, as their schools start classes only in September. In other areas of the country classes will start as early as the middle of August. In Florida, for instance, most families are coming back from vacation, and they are getting ready to shop during the couple of days of “tax free” shopping for supplies and for clothes for their children. So, here are some suggestions I would like to make for getting ready for the new academic school by trying to develop some strategies with the goal of preventing anxiety provoking situations and to diminish some in other circumstances. Please, keep in mind that your child’s age will determine which recommendations below are appropriate and applicable. You may want to adjust the following recommendations for children going to Middle School, as the strategies listed below are mostly focused on children who are going to Preschool and Elementary School which is when they are more likely to be diagnosed with Selective Mutism.
1.      Anxiety is contagious and the apple does not fall too far from the tree:  Research shows that anxiety is often (and most of the time) a genetic condition. If parents experience anxiety about a new situation, children with anxiety (and with S.M.) are very sensitive to their parents’ emotions. As a consequence, children with S.M. who notice their parents’ anxieties about the new school year starting will feel more anxious because they can feel their parents’ fears of the unknown that is about to come: a new teacher, a new school, a new routine for their children. I would like to recommend that parents express their fears and anxiety with other adults (such as spouses or friends), and not in front of their children. For instance, if you do not know who your child’s teacher is going to be, make sure you do not make any comments about your fears that your child will “get the very strict teacher from 5th graded you hear about”.
 
2.      Change in Rhythm. Activities, Shopping for School and Sensory Integration Difficulties: In the midst of writing lists of necessary items, and looking at the supply list provided by schools, I would like to ask parents to pay attention to their children’s anxieties that may go along with all the sudden change in activities that happen in the household. From a calmer summer, with a more relaxed schedule in some families (or even with summer camp and a relaxed evening without homework), suddenly parents and children start going shopping at malls, department stores, office supply stores, among other places. Some children have to try uniforms that are not as comfortable in their bodies as their summer clothes, not to mention getting new shoes for school.
There is some suggestion (from pilot and case studies) that children with Selective Mutism often present sensory-integration difficulties as well, such as being sensitive to noises, touch, too much activity, and certain foods. Thus, remember these aspects of your children’s individualities when making plans for these coming days and weeks before starting school: If you need to go shopping in a busy and noisy place, plan to go either early or later so that you face less traffic. In addition, when purchasing shoes and clothes, remember that your children may be oversensitive to trying shoes and clothes that have not been “softened” from use or from washing with softeners that you usually put in your laundry. As a matter of fact, if your children do not need uniforms, you may want to think about letting them use clothes they are familiar and feel comfortable with in the beginning of the school year if they are allowed to do that. This would diminish one area of source of anxiety and higher sensitivity for children. If they do need to wear a specific type of shoe (as it is required by Private Schools), then you can purchase them quite in advance and ask your children to wear them at home several times before the day they go back to school.
 
3.      School Meetings before the Academic School Starts:  I have talked to many parents about this topic back in May of this year: How to prepare the school staff for your child’s arrival in the fall of this year?
a.      Contacting School before School Starts: If you have not contacted your school to inform
The appropriate staff of your child’s diagnosis of Selective Mutism, please, do so as soon as you can. It is very important for you to have a meeting with the E.S.E. Specialist and/or the School Psychologist or Guidance Department in your child’s school. You can start the contact with the Principal or Assistant Principal as well.
If you are working with a professional in private practice, such as a psychologist, speech and language therapist, or other mental health professional, it would help for you to ask that person to write a letter with your child’s diagnosis and with recommendations for school. Many schools need a letter from a physician, such as a pediatrician, with confirmation of the diagnosis of Selective Mutism, in order to start a process of consideration for special assessments (at the public school level) so that they can make a decision about developing either a 504 or an I.E.P. for your child.
Selective Mutism is a psychiatric/neurodevelopmental, and a medical condition. It does impair children in many levels at school, and because of these two elements, children with S.M. have a disability which allows them to have special accommodations. Due to the scope of this article, I cannot describe the differences between a 504 Plan and an I.E.P., but you are welcome to email me with questions. You can also find more information in the www.selectivemutism.org website about this topic.
 
b.      Take your child to visit the school before school starts:  If this is a new school for your child, I would recommend you take your child to school many times during the last days of summer. If your child is going to walk, ride the bike, start doing that routine a few times before school starts. If your child is going to car pool (with people he/she knows), have some activities with these families before school starts.
c.      Try to have contact with your child’s teacher before school starts:  I have worked with many children and with their prospective teachers during the end of last year’s school year in order to help them initiate contact during the summer, and then meet a few times at school before the first day of school. For instance, some children visited the school in the end of last year’s academic classes when they were able to spend time with the potential teacher, and develop a rapport. Then, they also had some contact during the summer. At this point, these children have an “idea” of who the teacher is, what they look like, and the will be visiting the teacher in the classroom a few days before school starts to “help them with a project” for the class. For instance, some children are very artistic, so they will help the teacher with a bulletin board decoration. It would be helpful to receive the guidance of a mental health professional whose specialty is in the area of Selective Mutism and other Anxiety related disorders. The first contact with the school environment and the teacher (in elementary school) is very sensitive and crucial for the development of strategies to help a child with S.M. face a new school year.
d.      Play dates with previous and potential classmates: It would be helpful to set up play dates with potential classmates for the upcoming year. If you know who will be in your child’s class, your child may need some help in inviting peers to do an activity that they feel comfortable with.
e.      Prevention, prevention, prevention: There are so many other elements and strategies that parents and educators (with the help of a mental health professional and other specialties, such as speech and language therapists) can do before school starts! Very important topics to discuss with your child, her/his teacher, and other educational staff are the needs that your child may have when he/she needs to use the bathroom, or when she/he feels sick. Please, for detailed information on these topics, you can refer to my book: “Sophie’s Story: A Guide to Selective Mutism” (more information at www.verajoffe.com).
f.       If you have more questions, please, do not hesitate to email me by going to my website.
g.      You can also obtain very good information at the www.selectivemutism.org, and other websites that are supported by research and empirical evidence, such as the www.aacap.org, www.apa.org, www.nimh.org, among other respected professional and scientific sources of information.