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Evie and her Grandad’s canal barge: shyness, introversion and selective mutism explained

Date posted: Thursday 10th January 2013

Sir Walter Scott, famed Scottish author and poet, apparently didn’t speak a word until he was seven years old. One day the cook served him sausages that were slightly burned. “Take away these offensive charred items immediately!” were the first words that he is supposed to have uttered. When Scott’s astonished parents asked him why he had never spoken before, it is claimed he replied, “Well, no one has ever given me burned sausages!” After that the floodgates were opened, and he went on to write such classics as Ivanhoe, The Lady of the Lake and The Heart of Midlothian.

Canal Barge

Whether this story is true or not, we will never know (It doesn’t get mentioned on Wikipedia, so there must be some doubt). However it’s a good story that illustrates a common misconception about quiet children: ‘If only we can get them to talk once, then they will be fine about talking in public from then on.’ The foundation for this line of thinking is that very quiet children, and particularly children with selective mutism, are in full control of their silence, and are exerting enormous willpower to refuse to talk at school.

It’s just not so. Children who are very quiet in school, and who are unhappy about it, are probably shy or are introverts. Children who are totally silent in school, but talk a lot at home with their family, may have selective mutism. What’s the difference?

A shy child is keen to join in, but is anxious about how other people might react to them having a go at something, or talking in a group. Their anxiety can be so great that it stops them from joining in.

A child who is an introvert will enjoy being with other people, and may join in, but will be energised by being on their own: to think their own thoughts and to ‘do their own thing’. Or they may operate best when working in pairs or small groups because they prefer the company of a few people at a time.

A child with selective mutism has developed an extreme anxiety about talking outside their home. They may have developed a dread of talking, or have become terrified at the possibility that someone will try and make them speak. They can be so anxious that they may ‘freeze’ physically and be unable even to move.

Evie and her Grandad’s canal barge

I had a bit of a ‘Walter Scott’ moment in a small infants’ school once. I was asked to do a presentation to the whole school, to celebrate Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month. My show was all about where people live, including bow-top wagons, caravans and canal boats. I was getting a polite reception from the children, until I brought out my model of a canal barge. Then we all got a shock. Up jumped Evie from Year 2: “My Bampy’s got a barge like that, and it’s the same colour! And he takes me fishing! And we have toast! And he lets me feed the ducks!!!” Evie had a quick look around, went bright red, and promptly sat down. There was a collective gasp from the adults (who were all smiling).

Naturally I was very pleased, and started to ask Evie questions: “What’s it like being in Bampy’s boat? Has it got an engine? Etc., etc.” Nothing. Evie was steadfastly avoiding my gaze, and I felt like the lecturer who locks his eyes on a student and addresses his lecture to that unfortunate person for the entire hour.

As you can imagine, there was great excitement in the staffroom afterwards. It turned out that Evie was very quiet, and only usually spoke in small groups or one to one with an adult. Some staff were worried and thought she might have selective mutism.

So what was wrong with Evie? Well I would guess that she was a mixture of shy and introvert. Her teacher had the presence of mind to give Evie the option of painting a picture of her Bampy’s boat, or making a scale model out of cardboard. She was allowed to do both, and had plenty to say all afternoon.

The moral of the story: find out what children know about and they are likely to have plenty to say to you… just don’t push them.

For more information about quiet children read Supporting quiet children by Maggie Johnson & Michael Jones, published by Lawrence Educational.

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6 responses to “Evie and her Grandad’s canal barge: shyness, introversion and selective mutism explained”

  1. Lynda Thompson says:

    Info as usual Michael is very informative. Have several children in nursery who appear selective mute as they have no difficulty at home. We just have to find the key to unlock them.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Lynda! Have a look at the book that Maggie Johnson and I wrote, called Supporting Quiet Children. These activities may be just what is needed to help these little children ‘find their voice’. Book details are on
      Best wishes

  2. …such clear accessible info on a complicated subject for many of us.Thanks for giving me more examples and insights that I can back up my work with a boy who has at last started talking to me – after I asked him to teach me the rules of football…We started with him drawing the pitch on a huge piece of paper. Now I have just read this latest from you, and it helps me to justify my approach to his teacher. I am learning a lot about football, and also managing to get him to ameliorate his lateral /s/ while we are at it! Michael, you have given me more confidence to work with quiet children and those around them.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Louise
      I think that these children need to have individual approaches like yours, based on their interests, backed up by solid information, as appears in Maggie Johnson & Alison Wintgens book on selective mutism.
      Best wishes

  3. May I add a few more thoughts as although it’s good to keep things simple, inevitably it’s the overlap that causes confusion!

    Yes, children with selective mutism have developed a specific fear of speaking to or in front of certain people. So they can speak outside the home and often do – but are only comfortable speaking if they are sure that these ‘certain people’ are not listening. So as Michael says, they have indeed developed a fear of talking outside the home and are constantly monitoring their surroundings to check on who else is around and who might be watching them. Shy children don’t do this monitoring, and don’t suddenly freeze from talking comfortably with their friends to becoming silent and expressionless as an adult enters the room.

    I mention this because it’s important not to automatically rule out SM if quiet children talk sometimes at school. Children with SM are not always “totally silent in school”. For example they may:
    • talk to parents in an empty classroom or in the playground
    • talk to children but not adults
    • talk in earshot of other people but not directly to them
    • manage one or two words in answer to their teacher’s questions (with obvious tension in their voices or body language) but be unable to initiate conversation or requests
    • whisper or use another alternative to natural voice

    Allowing for all the above variations, a “diagnosis of SM requires that the failure to speak is persistent over time and that there is a consistency and predictability with respect to the situations in which speech does and does not occur”. (ICD-10)

    Thank you for drawing our attention to the differences Michael as it helps us adapt our expectations and interaction styles accordingly. It’s so important that children with SM are not confused with shy or introverted children, as the longer we delay appropriate treatment, the more entrenched their mutism becomes. And so important not to confuse shyness with introversion – “Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” (Susan Cain: ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’)

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Maggie!!
      Thanks for taking the time to reply in such detail!
      You make it so clear!!
      Many thanks

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