Academic journal article Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology

Young Selectively Mute English Language Learners: School-Based Intervention Strategies

Academic journal article Journal of Early Childhood and Infant Psychology

Young Selectively Mute English Language Learners: School-Based Intervention Strategies

Article excerpt

Selective mutism (SM) is characterized by a refusal to speak in specific social settings, such as school, despite the ability to speak in other settings, such as the home (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The extent to which a selectively mute child speaks in different contexts varies greatly (Freeman, Garcia, Miller, Dow, & Leonard, 2004). Often these children do not speak loudly in public, and there usually is a hierarchy of people with whom the child speaks (Freeman et al.). Schwartz and Shipon-Blum (2005) describe SM symptoms as falling along a continuum of severity. Children with mild SM only communicate with family and a select group of friends. These children use nonfluent language with gestures in settings in which they are less comfortable. Children with moderate SM communicate using sounds but not words. Children with moderately severe SM communicate using nonverbal means (e.g., gestures, head nod). With the most severe form, the children are nonverbal and do not use nonverbal communication.

The age of onset for SM is typically between two and four years of age, although it is typically not diagnosed until the start of school (Freeman et al., 2004). It affects about .71% of children in the United States (Bergman, Piacentini, & McCracken, 2002), with a higher incidence among children with speech and language delays. Studies report that the incidence of a speech and language delay in children with SM ranges from 11 to 68% (Dummit et al., 1997; Kristensen, 2000; Steinhausen & Juzi, 1996). However, the underlying cause of the mutism is anxiety rather than a delay in language.

There is also a higher incidence of SM in immigrant children (Elizur & Perednik, 2003; Toppelberg, Tabors, Coggins, Lum, & Burger, 2005). Elizur and Perednick (2003) found the prevalence of SM among the general population in Israel was .76%, but the rate among immigrants was 2.2%. In a Canadian study (Bradley & Sloman, 1975) the rate of SM was found to be 10 to 13 times greater in the immigrant population. In Germany and Switzerland, Steinhausen and Juzi (1996) found that 28 out of the 100 children with SM in their study were immigrants as well as language minorities. Toppelberg and colleagues (Toppelberg, Snow, & Tager-Flusberg, 1999; Toppelberg et al., 2005) suggest that the anxious immigrant child might be more likely to respond with SM than the anxious nonimmigrant child because the immigrant child has to adjust to a new cultural environment. Similar to anxious immigrant youngsters, anxious English language learners (ELLs) have a greater likelihood than monolingual children to be selectively mute (Elizalde-Utnick, 2003; Shipon-Blum, 2002).

Etiology of Selective Mutism

Conceptualizations of SM have shifted over the last two decades. In the past, SM was considered to be related to several conditions, including trauma, family dysfunction, speech and language delays, and oppositional behavior (Anstendig, 1999; Bergman, Piacentini, & McCracken, 2002; Hayden, 1980). For instance, Hayden attributed one form of SM as resulting from a traumatic event, such as the start of school which may be particularly traumatic for those who are very shy.

From a family systems perspective, others have suggested that children with SM are living in families characterized by intense attachment patterns, fear of strangers and suspiciousness of the outer world, extreme shyness, faulty communication patterns, and tension among family members (see Meyers, 1999). It is thought that the relationship between the parent and the child with SM is characterized by dependency and ambivalence along with an extreme need to control (Anstendig, 1998). Such family dynamics are evidenced in the families of the SM sample of the current author's (Elizalde-Utnick) on-going, longitudinal, schoolbased research study. Many of the mothers report anxiety over their inability to control how their children are treated in school. …

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