Sarah Ash, Subject Advisor for Health and Social Care and Stuart Ross, Special Requirements Manager
If you teach a subject that has non-examined assessment (NEA), having a student who is a selective mute presents some difficulties. How can you enable them to access the assessment when you know that a potentially uncomfortable situation may result in them being unable to speak? In this blog, we look more closely at the condition and some strategies that can help.
We have received a number of queries from centres asking about exactly this situation. Some centres have asked if it is possible for the student to not participate in whatever activity is required. However, we have a responsibility to make qualifications accessible to all. We also do not assume that students who are selective mutes do not want to take part in activities – they might just want to be helped to find a way to take part. For this blog we start on the basis that selective mutes can speak to some people: often these are family and friends and sometimes in certain situations.
Selective mutism is described by the NHS as “a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates at school or to relatives they do not see very often.”
Selective mutism often starts in childhood, but it can persist through adolescence and into adulthood. It can be misunderstood: it isn’t a wilful act not to speak or a choice, but a physical response to a stressful situation. The individual is literally not able to speak.
Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children. It’s more common in girls and in children who are learning a second language, such as those who’ve recently migrated from their country of birth. With early intervention the prognosis for recovery is good, but where it persists it can last right through a child’s school life and into adulthood.
SMiRA is a charity that provides advice and support for sufferers and their families. On their website they share stories and experiences of people who suffer with selective mutism. These are all very moving and provide valuable insight into what it might be like for your students who are selective mutes.
This extract from the poem ‘That Question’ written by Jania Williams explains the anxiety she faced about going to school:
Verses 1 and 3:
I hope they don’t ask me that question today.
I’ll freeze on the spot. I’ll have nothing to say.
My voice just stops working each morning at eight
It simply shuts down as I walk through the gate.
They ask me to speak but I can’t make a sound
My throat closes up as they gather around.
But when I’m at school I cannot let them hear.
I don’t understand why I tremble with fear.
We know and understand very well that many students don’t like to be asked questions, but for that to be compounded by physically being unable to speak, is simply unimaginable. This poem gets to the heart of the experience, and it highlights how important it is as teachers to know our students and make sure that other adults who visit our classrooms understand the variety of needs of the students we work with.
SMiRA say that for selective mutes, it is like having a bad case of stage fright, but unlike for most of us who experience nervousness before speaking in front of an audience, for selective mutes talking is impossible. The charity also explains that it is important to understand that those who are selective mute want to speak, but find themselves physically unable to do so due to their anxiety. We hope that the strategies suggested here might help to give them a voice.
The school day has a natural rhythm: students get to know their teachers and other students in their class and as a result they can begin to anticipate the situations that could bring on this reaction and consequently may begin to avoid them. If there is a requirement that students might have to participate in an activity for the NEA that requires them to speak, we would not expect you to put any student in a stressful situation or expect them to take part in an activity that they would find impossible. However, knowing that in some situations selective mutes will speak, Stuart Ross, Manager of the OCR Special Requirements team suggest that you consider the following to support these students:
This is a good starting point and a basis on which to engage with the learner. The Special Requirements team also suggest that you explain to the student at the start of the year that there will be a time when they will have to participate in an activity, demonstration or interaction. Try to tell them when in the academic year this might be, and share the assignment and task. Explain the different ways that they could take part, for example:
To give the student a chance to be prepared, have an open and honest conversation with them at the start of the year about what they will be expected to do for each assignment. This will allow them to identify what they will find difficult and where they might be able to complete the activity and who with.
This conversation can take place in private. If you give them a handout of what you are saying and the assignments you are referring to, they can take the information away and write a response, so that they don’t have to tell it to you if that is difficult for them.
If you have any concerns about whether the support you are giving constitutes malpractice, or if the strategies you have tried to enable the student to complete their assignments hasn’t worked, you can always get in touch with our Special Requirements team. Taking the initiative to engage with this team will not put a black mark against your centre and subject, but it will help you to know that you are doing the right thing. Never be afraid to ask!
We would like to finish this blog with two more verses from Jania’s poem:
If they only knew, I hate being this way.
I do want to talk I have so much to say.
I wish they could see that although I am quiet,
I can be fun too! I can be a riot!
I love to play games, to join in the fun.
Or sometimes just sit back and watch with someone.
I love a good joke. I wish that they knew,
I do get the joke! I am laughing too!
We would like to extend our thanks to SMiRA for allowing us to use information and resources from their website, and to Jania Williams for kindly allowing us to reproduce her poem ‘That Question’. Jania has written a book based on her experiences under the same title that could be a useful teaching resource.
If you have any comments or questions, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @OCR_Health. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive information about resources and support.
Sarah Ash - Subject advisor for health and social care
Sarah was a teacher of health and social care for ten years and has been working as a subject advisor for nearly 4 years. Sarah has written a number of blogs for OCR and was involved in the recent redevelopment of the Cambridge Nationals. She lives in Suffolk.
Stuart - Special Requirements Manager
Stuart oversees the team responsible for processing requests for access arrangements, reasonable adjustments and special consideration. He joined OCR in 2014 having previously taught students up to GCSE level with physical disabilities in the UK and taught English as a foreign language in Spain.