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                                                      Is it just Shyness?


Selective Mutism is more than just shyness and it is important to differentiate between the two so that adults in the environment can begin to support the child with SM. They will not just "grow out of it" and the SM can become severely entrentched, particularly if left untreated past primary school.


In their book The Selective Mutism Resource Manual (2002), Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgins use three criteria to mark the difference between shyness and SM. The extent of these differences may vary between individuals.


Avoidance - For children with SM where their anxiety is specific to speech you may notice marked attempts to avoid speech e.g. they may point, write or become almost professional mimes. In contrast children with shyness may blush, run away, hide behind familiar adults or talk quietly when the pressure on them to speak is removed.


Persistance - shy children will tend to "warm up" to talking when they feel more comfortable or familier with a situation. They may be more inclined to join in after watching others first or with adult help. Children with SM do not "warm up" to speech, their confidence may increase in a situation but speech does not.


Intensity - The anxiety of children with SM can cause a "frozen" or "rabbit in the headlights" type appearance. They may become unable to use any form of communication including non verbals such as eye contact, head nodding and/or smiling in situations where they feel they are expected to speak. Often children have reported a sense of "something stuck in their throat" that stops the words from coming out, to adults who they speak to.


Overall the difference between SM and shyness is described as a difference between speech and non speech behaviour after increased confidence - shy children will warm up to speaking, children with SM have a threshold that cannot be crossed.


In this article written by Michael Jones, Maggie Johnson indicates another key determiner of SM - Shy children may always be wary of new situations and people but generally welcome help with joining in. Children with SM specifically dread speaking and may become wary of any perceived pressure to speak, becoming frozen and shutting down, making them unable to respond.


These handouts can be a great resource for use with families and schools:


SMIRA Speaking Out Early Years and Prevention – This is a great handout for raising awareness in pre-school settings. It available for free download from or the SMIRA facebook page

 - this handout from Michael Jone's website gives easy to read information on the difference between SM and shyness.


It is important to recognise that shy and quiet children without SM may also need supports to develop speaking confidence. Michael Jones has lots of information on his website in this area and his book Supporting Quiet Children (co written with Maggie Johnson) is targeted at supporting these children. Find a link to it here

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