Karen Deerwester, Ed.S. - Parent Educator and Early Childhood
founder and CEO of Family Time, Inc., and consultant. In 17 years of
seminars, and one-on-one coaching, Karen has supported thousands of
in their efforts to build great foundations for children. Karen is
committed to helping parents become problem solvers in the large and
questions that arise "living with children."
Not Talking in Preschool
Question: My 3 and a half year old does not speak at preschool, unless directly spoken to and often then only whispers or shrugs, nods, etc. Her teacher has expressed concern to me. My child is very bright and is definitely learning things at school but is not expressing what she learns. Is this normal? What can I do to help her talk more at school?
This would be an excellent time to observe your daughter's language use in a
variety of situations. Is school the only place where she is less
expressive? Is she chattering away at home, in other public places, with
friends and their families in their homes? How do her language skills
compare to a variety of children her age? If your daughter is new to school,
the problem may just be with the initial transition. If the behavior is
limited to a few people, your daughter may just be overwhelmed with certain
types of personalities that are new to her.
I think you can be reassured that her intellectual development is strong and,
if there is a concern about her language development, she is at a wonderful
age to receive help.
There is a language disability called "selective mutism" whereby children
choose not respond verbally in public situations but are quite talkative at
home with family members. In school, they may even choose to speak with a
classmate who then conveys their message to the teacher or, as you described,
they may respond in a very limited way when directly approached. The
definition of selective mutism is "a persistent failure (not refusal) to
speak in select social settings". According to the Social Anxiety Webring
website, children with selective mutism have a desire to speak but cannot do
so because of anxiety, fear, shyness, or embarrassment. Children may whisper
or use nonverbal gestures to communicate. The behavior is usually identified
by the child's school and usually before 5 years of age. If you think this
describes your daughter's situation, there are numerous websites with more
information. Just search under "selective mutism". I would also schedule a
meeting with your daughter's teacher to discuss further her observations and
concerns. She is a valuable person in your daughter's life.
Keep in mind that your daughter should not be forced to talk. It will only
add to her discomfort and, possibly, to withdrawal. Your goal, as well as
the goal of supportive adults around her, is to encourage her to build a
speaking repertoire step by step. Practice with one word answers at home and
build to longer and longer responses. Lastly, monitor your expectations and
try not to rush her progress. Time and patience are your greatest allies.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.
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