How Teachers Can Help Kids in Class

With a new year and a new semester of school, I’ve been thinking about all the thinks that make me nervous and anxious in a classroom, and the things that teachers do to help me feel more comfortable. So, I put together a list of a few things that teachers should and should not do when teaching an anxious student. One of my favorite teachers Dr. Kirsten Stein had kindly agreed to let me do a guest blog post on her online school, Athena’s Advanced Academy. Hopefully, in the future, this will help teachers to make SM and anxious kids more comfortable in a class. 

Before I started online schooling, I was in brick-and-mortar school. Besides being bored all the time because I wasn’t being challenged, school was a little scary. I had a lot to say and contribute, but the only way to share my thoughts was to be called on to speak in front of thirty other classmates. The idea of having to do that petrified me. Online schooling can be a big advantage to kids with anxiety if the instructor knows how to treat them. The ability to participate blog-style in an online classroom helps anxious kids feel more comfortable in school. Kids often feel more comfortable participating and speaking behind the security of a screen because they do not know what others are thinking about them and cannot see their facial expressions. If you do not know what someone else is thinking about you, you can forget them and focus on what you have to say. While some people think this is a bad thing because they are “hiding,” in reality it is an entry point which can launch the student into more active participation. Further, even if that is as far as that student is ready to go for now, it is better than no participation at all. If instructors can focus on the positives, and find the best ways to deal with students with anxiety, they can really contribute to those kids’ academic experiences in a helpful way. However, if the instructor does not know how to treat them, online webinars can be very stressful. 

Here are some of my thoughts about how teachers can help kids with anxiety feel more comfortable in a classroom. First, they should encourage kids to participate and speak while not making a kid feel pressured and uncomfortable. One good way to do this is to split students up into small groups or breakout rooms to work on a project together. Then, an anxious child might feel more comfortable speaking to two or three, or even four other kids, rather than fifteen or twenty. Another good way is to give kids a heads up about what you will talk about in class, so kids can already be thinking about what they have to say before arriving in class. That helps kids with anxiety talk a little more because they feel more comfortable speaking about something that they have thought about before-hand. Also, when teaching an anxious kid, there are some things you should always do. First, when a nervous student raises their hand to participate, you should prioritize them. This prioritization is because if another person is often saying an anxious student’s ideas before that student gets the chance to give their thoughts, then the anxious student will not be inclined to speak at all because they will feel that their contributions won’t matter or be as fresh. Also, it is important to not let one kid ‘hog’ the entire conversation. If one kid is doing all the talking and not letting anyone else have a chance to contribute, a nervous kid will be discouraged from engaging. 

However, there are also a few behaviors that instructors should avoid. First, for an anxious kid, the worst thing to happen in a classroom is being cold-called. That is because when a teacher cold-calls a student, they would have gotten called to speak when they might not have felt comfortable doing it. However, you should not ignore a child that is nervous, even if you think that it is doing them a favor by not making them participate. This is because if you do ignore them, it makes them feel invisible, or like no one notices them, or like they are not a part of the class. Additionally, you should not make a big deal about a student speaking in class to the entire classroom, but it is good to send a private message to the student about your pleasure with them engaging. Lastly, you should never force conversation or participation out of a student, but you can encourage it. 

Additionally, participation points can be either good or bad, depending on the student. For some kids, participation points are helpful because it gives them motivation that is greater than their anxiety. However, for others, it is very stressful, because it pretty much forces them to speak against their will. It’s helpful to run a poll at the beginning of the semester to gather students’ thoughts on this subject, and personalize teaching to the specific group of kids and what makes them tick.

To conclude, many teachers are unsure how to handle students with anxiety who do not openly want to participate. They might be inclined to either ignore students who seem anxious thinking they are helping, or try the opposite: forcing them into participating in a specific way. However, if these teachers are aware of how to make kids feel more comfortable, then both the student and the teacher can be happier and more relaxed, and the student will be able to contribute more to the discussion. This is a benefit to kids and instructors alike, as well as other kids in the class, as if everyone is comfortable, then we can create a tighter-knit community. 

A Perspective of Selective Mutism

My experience as the brother of Someone with Selective Mutism

As the brother of my selectively mute sister, I spend a lot of time with her. In doing so, I have noticed that there are truly two sides of her. There is an extremely loud and extremely quiet side (and a little bit in the middle on occasion). It is very strange to watch. At home, around people she has known her entire life, she is the loudest one in the room, by far. She expresses pretty much anything that she is thinking, and clearly feels comfortable doing it. Yet when we walk out the door, something changes and suddenly even when she should speak, it’s much more difficult for her, even if she has known the person for a while. This is really interesting to watch, and it shows just how extreme selective mutism can be, even in an average case of it.

Advice to families and friends of those with selective mutism

As for the family and friends of people with selective mutism, there are a few ways that you can help. One thing is to set an example to whoever has selective mutism – for example, just start talking to somebody in front of them, showing them that it really is not so bad or scary. Do not try to force them to talk, or walk them right up to somebody – let them learn by example. In fact, if you try to force them, they will likely just freeze and say nothing, making the situation worse if anything. I would say that it is not good to look at the situation like a condition or disorder, but rather as a skill which is not developed – and it is partly your job to help develop that skill. Again, example is a great starting place for this.

So, to summarize:


  • Set an example in front of them
  • Look at it in a positive way, as a learning opportunity
  • Try to figure out what is causing the selective mutism (fear of the person, fear of the outcome of talking to anybody, not knowing what to say, etc.) and try to help eliminate the cause(s).
  • Learn more about selective mutism, it can help both you and the person with it – to get you started, we have some links!


  • Try to force speech
  • Leave it be and hope they start talking on their own
  • Look at the situation like a condition or disorder or something similar

Some Helpful Links

Hi! Milana and Gabriel here. We wanted to share these useful links for learning more about selective mutism, hand-chosen and vetted by both of us. If you’re dealing with selective mutism, these resources have our full approval.

Selective Mutism – PMC 

This link takes you to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which provides an extensive amount of official facts from the government. Although it is a bit outdated, being published in March of 2010, we feel it still remains relevant. It is very long, however, and may not be as readable for younger readers.

What Is Selective Mutism – Selective Mutism Anxiety & Related Disorders Treatment Center | 

This link takes you to the Selective Mutism Center (SMart Center), which provides facts about selective mutism, including comparing it to other similar conditions, and some other points which they suggest you, the reader, to research too.

Selective mutism: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

This link takes you to the MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, which provides some easy-to-read facts about selective mutism, without you having to spend all your time going through hundreds of paragraphs of information. 

Selective Mutism | Cedars-Sinai 

Cedars-Sinai offers treatment and recommendations for kids living with selective mutism. This article goes into depth; however, much is in bullet points so it is quite readable for either kids or adults.

Selective Mutism   

ASHA, or the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, has a section on Selective Mutism that we find really helpful, including recommendations for testing and treatment.

We plan to keep adding resources here as we find them, so check back often!

Facts About Selective Mutism – Gabriel

People with selective mutism are people who do not feel comfortable talking to the majority of people that they do not know extremely well. It is generally caused by a fear of public embarrassment or any other type of shyness. They think that they are being judged everywhere they go, everything they do, although they are not – and this causes this caution in talking to other people. This can happen not only with strangers, but also people seen regularly! People with selective mutism usually want to speak – they know that it is important and would only benefit them – but feel mentally restrained. This type of fear manifests mostly from ages 11-13, while the beginnings of selective mutism can happen as early as 3-6 years old although has more of an impact in the younger ages (generally around 6-), however, its impact can greatly depend on the person. In older children, it can have lesser affects as they can think a bit more deeply about what people are going to think – and realize that they are mostly just not going to judge anything. Even though many know this, they still have an internal fear, which is in the end selective mutism. 

Sometimes, children with selective mutism will speak in a few select scenarios (a more mild case), but in other cases they will very rarely speak (a very severe case), overall depending on the amount of anxiety – caused by selective mutism – that they have in social circumstances. Selective mutism is able to be passed down from generation to generation – if no parents or grandparents have ever had selective mutism, you are not as likely to have it, but if you have a family history of it, you have a much higher chance to get it. Of course, you can get selective mutism without a family history – it is just less likely. Selective mutism, however, is quite rare – only known to affect less than one percent of children in the US. It affects females slightly more than males, although this very much could be concluded simply because of research limitations and is not necessarily correct. 

What is Selective Mutism? – Milana

My trainer comes up to me. “How are you doing, Milana?” She asks. I barely whisper, “Good,” though I see her 4 times a week, sometimes more. And she’s not scary, I just can’t speak to her.

Lots of people confuse selective mutism with just plain shyness. But there is a big difference. Take Gabriel, my brother, for example. He is shy. When he went to school, at first, when people talked to him, he would just stand there. But my mom explained to him to just say ‘hi,’ and he thought ‘Ok! That’s easy,’ and suddenly he talked. My mom tried the same tactic with me… with a different outcome. It didn’t make me talk – if anything, it made me quieter. That’s because he is shy and I am selectively mute

If someone is shy, they are hesitant to speak, but will, if they are in the right setting with the right encouragment. They might just be scared to say the wrong thing or worried that they will say the wrong thing. They may be frightened, but if they feel safe they will open up. But when you are selectively mute, it’s different. You really want to speak, but can’t. You want to open up, but won’t. You want to be a part of the group, a part of the conversation, but no. You’re quiet, not because you want to, but because you have no choice. For example, one day at my barn, Bella (my friend) and Madison (my trainer) were talking about the animals that show up in their backyard. I wanted to put in about the turtle that came to my backyard a few days back, but after a few minutes, when my vocal cords still wouldn’t vibrate, we moved on. 

We figured out I had selective mutism a few years ago, when, thinking I was shy, my mom brought me to a therapist to help get some mental tools to get me to open up more. When that did not work, the therapist suggested that I might have selective mutism, and I should see a specialist. At this point, we started doing some research, and everything matched that I would have selective mutism. Actually finding out that something could define what I was feeling made me feel much better and less alone than before. Because it helps to know that other people are similar to me and that I am not alone. Finally, we saw a therapist that specialized in selective mutism, and she started helping me. That helped me a bit because she understood me, but it still did not completely help. Selective mutism is always a challenge in everyday life, and I am constantly struggling with it. 

Having selective mutism means I also have a lot of unvoiced thoughts and comments. That builds up a bunch, and sometimes it helps to write it down. That’s part of what got me to start making this. Just because I don’t say much doesn’t mean I don’t think much or feel much. Sharing it with similar beings can help a ton.