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Helping children who are anxious about talking. With help from Stevie Wonder, Play for Change, and The Woodcraft Folk!

Date posted: Saturday 25th October 2014

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For most of the 1990s I was involved with a brilliant group for children and teenagers called The Woodcraft Folk. Woodcraft is a national organisation that believes in cooperation and helping boys and girls to enjoy the outdoors. Our group used to go hiking and camping as often as possible, and in the early summer we would spend a special weekend at a local campsite, learning about pitching tents, collecting wood, building a fire and cooking outdoors. On Saturday night everyone would meet around the campfire and sing songs and act out sketches that the children had been making up and practicing throughout the day.

That particular Sunday was going to be a day of challenges for the youngsters: climbing trees, working in a group to all get across a muddy bog on a log, swinging on a very high zip wire, archery and crossing a deep gorge on an aerial walkway. We split into groups of six youngsters and two adults and did the rounds of the various challenges. The children in our group were aged 10 to 12 and everyone joined in with the spirit of the physically challenging activities. We had a long chat beforehand about how you didn’t have to join in with anything you thought might be too risky, and no-one would say anything if you found something a bit daunting.

When I was a child I loved climbing high trees and being up high on tall buildings. It gave me a great sense of exhilaration. But just occasionally I would look down and become strangely paralysed with fear. Then I literally couldn’t move and had to talk myself into a state of relaxation and try and somehow get down. As I became an adult, this feeling increased, and now I really don’t relish being up high working on a ladder, or on a rollercoaster or any ride at a funfair that involves heights. In fact, if I’m quite honest, I can feel quite terrified. It’s not rational: it’s just a feeling that overtakes me.

So it was our group’s turn to try the aerial walkway. It consisted of three wires secured 20 feet up a pine tree, stretching across a wooded dip about 30 feet deep. You were given a crash helmet and a harness to wear around your waist. Attached to the harness was a clip that secured you to the middle wire, so that if you slipped you wouldn’t fall and severely injure yourself. You lifted your hands up above you and grabbed onto the top wire to steady yourself, while you gradually shuffled your feet sideways and moved along the bottom wire: a bit like being on a tightrope, but sideways on.

So the children took turns, one at a time, to climb up a ladder to the starting point, where an experienced youth leader clipped the child onto the middle wire and off they went across the wire to the other side, about 20 metres away. Five children did it no problem. Although it was quite nerve racking, they all enjoyed having met the challenge. I had been across first and had found it quite fun, as long as I concentrated on moving my feet and didn’t look down. The group down below shouted positive comments to anyone up on the wire, which was quite helpful.

Stevie Wonder : Higher Ground

Then it was Hannah’s go. She was absolutely fine until she got halfway across and then suddenly stopped. We could all tell from down below that she was in the grip of the deadly fear. What to do? Do you shout encouraging messages like, ‘It’s easy really! We all did it, so you can do it too!’ Or ‘Don’t worry! Don’t be scared!’ The children were saying things like that, but we could see that poor Hannah was becoming more and more terrified.

Our leader sprang into action. Or to be exact he told me to spring into action. “I could go up there”, he explained, “but you know her best and she will listen to you. Stand beside her and tell her she will be OK if she takes one small step at a time. Tell her she is a good girl and say, ‘well done’ a lot. Don’t hurry her and then she will relax and maybe even start to enjoy herself.”

So up the ladder I went. I must admit I was feeling quite worried: not for myself, but about what would happen if I didn’t succeed and we were both stuck up there. Would I suddenly get the terrors and have to be rescued as well? Once I got close to Hannah I could see that she had completely lost it. “I don’t want to die,” she whispered. Then I looked down and started to feel the panic rise up from my feet. “Well”, I said in a confident voice, “we both got this far, so we can go a bit further. Let’s move our feet slowly and concentrate on taking one small step at a time. Good girl. Well done. Now let’s take another step.“

That’s what we did, and we both lived to tell the tale. What was very interesting for me, and showed the skill and sensitivity of the young leader, was that he immediately explained to the whole group how fear can overtake you at any time. Even the most experienced climbers can suddenly start to dwell on the danger they might be in and then start to feel panic rising. But with practice you learn to overcome your fear and can begin to enjoy yourself. He congratulated the group on being so supportive of each other, and we all ate some chocolate. What I was so glad this young man didn’t do, was to make light of Hannah’s fear and say, “Well, now you’ve done it once you should have no problem doing it again!”

Play for Change’s amazing version of Higher Ground

I often remember this experience when I think of children who have high anxiety about talking in public or those with selective mutism, who can talk well at home but may be completely silent in school. They may be gripped by an irrational fear, and if those around them are putting pressure on them to speak, the anxiety increases. If all adults can come to a shared understanding of how the child feels, and agree not to put pressure to try and make her talk, then she will start to relax.

Senior staff need to make sure that everyone has the same positive approach and ensure that nobody makes light of the child’s fear of talking, or believes that ‘If only she could be made to talk once then she will be able to talk all the time’. In the case of children with confirmed selective mutism, the school will benefit from support to set up a programme to take the child forward towards talking, a step at a time. This whole process is explained brilliantly in a DVD called ‘Silent Children’ available from the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA).

And what happened to Hannah? She recovered quickly from her ordeal, but said she felt silly for panicking. Later in the day she had a go at various other risky activities, including crossing the muddy bog on the log, and was fine. We were all very pleased for her. The Woodcraft Folk’s motto is ‘Span the World with Friendship’ and at the end of each camp they get together in a big circle and hold hands and sing a song called ‘Link Your Hands Together’. The last line is ‘Should anyone be weary, we’ll help them along.’ It’s a great message.

Click here to watch the incredible Stevie Wonder session in full!

Take care out there.


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6 responses to “Helping children who are anxious about talking. With help from Stevie Wonder, Play for Change, and The Woodcraft Folk!”

  1. Such a brilliant analogy for how it feels to have selective mutism and how to help children work through it – very many thanks Michael!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks for replying Maggie!
      Everyone has fears, and sometimes terrors, that just don’t bother other people at all. It’s helpful to remind adults sometimes of that.
      It’s only when I’m on a rollercoaster or some mad ride at a theme park that I realise just how much I hate being up high. By then it’s too late!!

  2. mary haggett says:

    Thank you Michael for shedding some light on this bewildering situation.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Mary
      Thank you for responding. Bewildering is the word! The SMIRA DVD helps us to see this extreme anxiety from the child’s point of view.
      If you have ever had massive anxiety before giving a talk, then you can start to empathise.
      Please email if you’d like to discuss the subject further, or visit
      Best wishes

  3. Eilis says:

    I love this article and I myself hated reading out loud in front of the class when younger and it reminds me of the dread before it was my turn. I work with young children and always aware of letting them have time to talk in their own time without pressurizing them. Funny though cause when you were talking about the climbing trees as a young child it brought back memories of how I loved to do same and not so great now.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you for getting in touch Eilis!
      I think as we get older we are more aware about taking risks (at least physically!)
      ‘Dread’ is a very good word to use, but with sensitive support (and not putting children on the spot because we believe that ‘you need to be cruel to be kind’, shy children can make a lot of progress.
      There are loads of other posts, and I hope you have time to dip in to some of them!
      Best wishes from Michael

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