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3 Year Old Won't Talk in School. Selective Mutism?

My three and a half year old son talks nonstop at home, but once in a setting with other kids his age he does not want to talk. He goes to a daycare three days a week and enjoys interacting with his peers, but does not speak. He will laugh, scream, giggle but that is about it. If his teacher tries to talk to him he will whisper, point, or shake his head. He plays with other kids outside of daycare and acts the same as above. When asked why he will not talk he says "I only talk at home," "I don't like to talk at school," "I am scared to talk at school," "My mouth hurts to talk at school." Any suggestions to get him to communicate better with his peers?

Thanks, Mark

Dear Mark,

I can understand your concern that your son is not talking with his peers, either at preschool or outside it. It is reassuring that he enjoys interacting with peers, in the sense of laughing, giggling, screaming, etc. It is also reassuring that he talks nonstop at home with you. He may just be a little shy, in which case he will outgrow it as he becomes more comfortable with other kids (although he may never be a group talker.) I will be better able to advise you if you can answer a few questions:

How is his hearing? It may be that in a group environment it is hard for him to make out the words, whereas at home he is compensating by reading your lips. I assume that this is not an issue, but it should be ruled out by a pediatrician.

Does he engage in play with other kids, such as at the playground? Even parallel play in the sandbox or on the climbing structure usually eases kids into conversation of some sort. Is he willing to have even one on one conversations with other kids?

Is his teacher concerned? While teachers can be wrong, they do see a wide range of children, so they have a good sense of what is unusual and what is simply a delay within the normal range.

Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura,
Thank you for getting back with me. To answer your questions:
1. His hearing is not a problem. He just refuses to to talk outside of his parents. He doesn't want to us if other people are around.

2. He loves to play with other kids, and they love to play with him. He will wrestle and rough house but not verbalize.

3. His teachers have not shown real concern but I think that may be to keep us from over worrying. The pediatrician has no problem with his behavior as we asked his opinion as well.

Any suggestions? He seems to be getting worse. It takes longer to warm up to family to talk but he does not shy away when they come to our house. He shows off his toys but will not talk for quite some time. He loves to play with other kids his age but very very little verbalization. Is there anything we can do. He willing goes to other kids houses so he is not shy in that manner. Once we leave he talks nonstop. He does not like large groups of people his age but seems fine if we go the mall or a restaurant.


Without meeting your son, it’s hard to say. Let me tell you what I see that’s positive, what’s worrisome, and what I suggest.

Positive indicators:

  • Your son talks with you nonstop.
  • Your pediatrician is not worried and has ruled out hearing problems.
  • Your son is comfortable going to peers’ houses and playing with other kids.
  • Your son likes preschool.
  • Your son actually loves playing with other kids and they love playing with him.
  • His teachers aren’t worried.

Here’s what worries me. A 3 1/2 year old uses play for all sorts of important developmental achievements-- social, intellectual, emotional. And in play, children are expected by their peers to engage verbally. He will need to talk to be accepted by his social group. What's more, teachers may be forgiving now, but he will need to talk to function in school, and teachers often become less flexible about this particular issue as children move up through the grades. Many adults see a child's not speaking as being willfully uncooperative, and the adult tries to force the child to speak, which just makes the child feel more threatened and less able to speak.

Your son's not talking may already be getting in the way of his normal development, and if it continues, it will likely be more of an issue as he gets older. And since his not speaking probably indicates that he is not feeling completely safe in a school and social situations, it's important to address. 

There is an anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism in which kids find it very difficult to talk in certain situations where they are anxious. One adult who suffered from Selective Mutism when she was a child told me that she could feel her throat closing up when she tried to talk at school. She would try, and just couldn't force the words out. That is how extreme fear feels to us--like extreme contraction and constriction. Your son's comments that  "I am scared to talk at school,"  and "My mouth hurts to talk at school" sound like he may be expressing that same feeling. While I obviously can't diagnose your son from a letter, I think you want to intervene now so that this behavior doesn’t become part of his coping repertoire. 

Here’s what I’d suggest:

1.Remove all pressure on your son to talk. Tell him that you understand that sometimes it is hard for him to talk, and that’s ok. “Everybody gets a little nervous sometimes. You will talk when you’re ready.”

2.Instead, focus on reducing his anxiety, both in school and out of it. Avoid anything that could be increasing his stress level. Talk to the teachers about helping him to feel safer at school. If he can feel more happily connected to an adult at school, that might make all the difference.

3. When you talk with him, empathize and give him language for his feelings. “Sounds like you were a little scared.” “I guess you were pretty mad.” This will help him feel less overwhelmed by his anxiety.

4. Reward progress in the right direction with enthusiastic acknowledgment and a big hug: “I saw you tell that boy at the playground your name. Good for you! You must be proud of how brave you were!”

5. Don’t ever mention in front of him that this is an issue, and don’t push him, or he will begin to harden into his self-image as someone who doesn’t speak. If someone else mentions it, casually say “I guess he’s feeling quiet today.”

6. Let him try on other personas. Play games with him where he uses different voices and takes on different characters. Encourage him to wear superhero costumes and teach him the hero’s catch phrases. He might feel more comfortable if he’s being someone else.

7. Make sure he knows what to say so he is less anxious when interacting. Role play with him how short conversations with other children might unfold.

8. Teach him tools to manage his anxiety. Start by helping him to notice when he feels anxious. Then teach him to use EFT (Emotional freedom technique, which is simply tapping on acupressure points and is effective in reducing anxiety), progressive muscle relaxation, and other tools to relax. (Here's an article on EFT.)

I think with these techniques you will see your son begin speaking in school.

If not, though, I suggest that you follow up by educating yourself about Selective Mutism. Most laypeople, including teachers, don’t know about it, and if you do decide to consult a professional, I would recommend that you start with, to find a professional who is experienced in the specific treatment required for this anxiety disorder. I want to reassure you that if properly treated (i.e., with techniques to manage anxiety rather than with pressure to speak), kids are able to overcome even full-blown selective mutism, which I do not think your son has, because he does seem comfortable playing with other children.

I wish you and your son every blessing. He sounds like a wonderful kid.
Please stay in touch and let me know what happens.

Dr. Laura

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Stuart commented on 06-Nov-2009 05:06 PM
Dr. Laura My wife and I have two children a 7 year old boy and a 3 yr 7 month girl. Our daughter has just started school in September. She at home speaks non-stop . She uses long sentence and multiple syllable words. She is quite advanced . She is starting to read by sounding out. She was talking and singing alphabet song etc well before her second birthday. The problem is at school she rarely talks and seems somewhat withdrawn. My wife and I are quite concerned that she seems to not participate or enjoy her school. She has a stay -at-home mom and I have been quite fortunate in my career and take quite a bit of time off. She until school always had adults around. She reacts and plays with other children at our home and at parties etc. She talks to all our friends and family but not to her teachers. For example she was out of diapers before her first birthday but occasionally wets herself at school. What if anything other than worry can we do.
Dr. Laura Markham commented on 10-Nov-2009 10:56 AM
Stuart-- Dr. Laura here. I am so sorry to hear about your daughter's problems adjusting to school. I can see why you and your wife are worrying.

Your daughter is withdrawn, not participating at school, and having occasional out-of-character potty accidents in addition to not speaking to her teachers. It sounds like she is not enjoying the other kids at school either.

I think you should do more than worry. I think you should immediately speak with her teachers. Your daughter needs some extra help from them to feel safe and comfortable in the classroom. All kids need to bond with their teachers to relax in the classroom. This is not unusual, what is unusual is if the teachers haven't reached out to her after two months of school when she is clearly still uncomfortable.

After you speak with the teachers, hopefully you will see some improvement. You can facilitate your daughter's bonding and adjustment by following the suggestions in my article on helping kids adjust to school. (Click here)

But if you don't see any improvement, I would recommend that you consider changing schools to find a better fit. Good luck!
Lisa commented on 09-May-2010 02:42 AM
Hi, I am also a parent of a 3 1/2 year old boy who is doing exactly the same thing. He attends an early learning school, and the teacher informed me that this is a warning sign and should be treated now, rather than later.
Anonymous commented on 11-Jan-2011 12:47 PM
I have the same problem with my child and he is the same age. It has been 7 months and he will not talk he will not let them know he need to use the restroom. Help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Pepito, Jr. commented on 10-Aug-2011 11:31 PM
Hi, I have the same problem with my 3 year and 7 month old son. He does not answer the questions of his teacher whenever he is ask to recite or participate. He gets the instruction of his teacher right away. I asked him why he does not want to answer his
teacher he just told me that he does not want to. That is the only reason he gave me and his grandmother. Also, he does not want to be left alone inside the classroom. Every time we leave him with his teacher and classmates he will cry and will not stop until
we are beside him. He either wants me or his grandmother to be beside him during class. Good thing is the teacher allow us to be him so as to make him stop crying. We tried to explain to him that we he needs to be left alone with his teacher and classmates
since they are friendly and harmless, but still to no avail.
rameez commented on 22-Aug-2011 11:17 AM
hi,am also the parent of 3 and half year old boy child with same problem. he talks more n house but outside the house he s quiet . he likes t elder childrens n kids of his same stage but he hestitate to mingle with younger ones .teacher s complaining about
his shyness n school.he likes to go to school but he s silent brother s having twins.after coming from the school he always beat that kids. iam very much scared abt him.hw to change his charecter. is it serious trouble.
Laura Markham commented on 22-Aug-2011 04:08 PM
Hi- If you're posting here asking for help with your child's Selective Mutism, please read the answer above. If your child has not responded to the suggestions above, please do not wait. Your child needs intervention from a professional who is experienced
with this specific disorder. Ask the professional what their methodology is, and what their success rate is. You want to hear that they understand this as anxiety, rather than as willful behavior.

If your concern is that your child is crying in school, or is unhappy in school, that is a different issue. Please see my article on Helping Your Child Adjust to School (, and speak
to the teacher about reaching out to your child to help your little one feel connected in the classroom.
Anonymous commented on 25-Aug-2011 03:56 PM
My son as well is not wanting to interact in class infront of large groups...His teacher tried to give him a placement test and he did not answer one question, he put his head toward the grown and did not answer.. I'm conserned... Please help!!!
Masha commented on 15-Nov-2011 08:26 AM
I would just like to add that some children need to be sure that their parents will pick them up after school. Of course, you pick her up every day, but that doesn't mean she has to know you will do the same the next day. My 3 and a half year old son doesn't
like going somewhere new (kindergarden, preschool) and he was grabbing my leg, crying and sobbing, it was terrible... then I started telling him every morning just before entering the classroom "I love you so much, I hope you have fun playing with your friends,
and remember, I will pick you up after class and give you a big hug!" He doesn't talk much at school either, but after telling his teacher that he is shy and needs more attention, he is feeling more relaxed and talks a bit more. Good luck to everyone :)
Nicole commented on 07-Dec-2011 02:29 PM
I am real glad to hear that there is more children out here like mine. My son who just entered kindergarten and has been in preschool for two years just does not like to speak in class, even with all the exposure. he is a chatter box at home and will talk
with friends and family here but not always as much as with us. His teachers at school say that they are very concerned for him and keep pushing speech therapists down my throat for a second year now. I am grateful for all the help he has received but now
I am afraid of pushing him to much to speak in class that he is actually going to regress. He is very smart, he just doesn't show the same potential in a school setting. His younger brother who is a year younger is his best friend, and does not show the same
anxiety as his older brother. I was also very shy in my early years, so I am very hesitant to push him anymore, and i only want to focus on all the positive achievements he makes, as little or as big as they may be. :D

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