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Helping children and teens with selective mutism. With help from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony!

Date posted: Thursday 16th June 2016

Take a look at this video clip. In a town square in Spain a man with a double bass stands still. A little girl drops a Euro into the musician’s hat. He begins playing Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. To the delight and amazement of the growing crowd, members of a symphony orchestra and choir gradually appear from a nearby building, as they join in the crescendo of the symphony.

Ode to Joy

Did you say ‘Aahh!’? I did. Then I watched again and thought about what I was actually seeing. If this was a spontaneous act, where are the daytime drinkers, homeless people and teenagers that you usually find hanging around city squares and walking in front of buskers? Why don’t we see a film crew with loads of equipment? And how did the production team arrange for all those musicians and the audience to work together to make the whole ‘happening’ so spontaneous? I can tell you. There would have been a crew of at least 30 people on the ground throughout the day, including a director, producers, security officers, lighting crew, sound engineers, the local police, and almost certainly a large catering team. There will have been many meetings beforehand to discuss finance and the ‘message’ of the film and how to have the maximum emotional impact on the viewer. There will have been a storyboard so that cameras could be in the right positions. Then everything will have been carefully rehearsed. Crucially, the film footage will have been edited and sound overdubbed on the images. The bank will have agreed for this to happen. In fact they will have paid a lot of money for this to happen. Because, after all, this is an advert for a bank. But we only find out about this at the end of the video.

Now that you know this, are you, like me, beginning to feel ever-so-slightly manipulated? Are you annoyed with Banco de Sabadell for having manipulated your emotions and wasted your time? If you don’t like banks in the first place, it may confirm your suspicions that they are really just after your money.

Now let’s look at this trailer for a film about Beethoven’s symphony

Following the Ninth

Of course this trailer is trying to manipulate our emotions: after all, the makers want us to see the film. But I can’t help thinking about those Chilean demonstrators who sang Ode to Joy in the streets outside the prison where thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated. The brave protestors knew that they were likely to be tear-gassed and beaten up, or even arrested and slung in jail, just like their comrades. And I’m moved to hear about the brave protesters in Tiananmen Square who played the symphony over loudspeakers to give themselves courage, a feeling of human dignity and a sense of solidarity.

The first video left me feeling cheated, while the second made me want to explore Beethoven’s work, and maybe buy the DVD. One is slightly underhand, while the other is ‘upfront’ about what it wants from you. It certainly inspired me to find out more about what happened in Tiananmen Square and in Chile under General Pinochet. I read that Chilean political prisoners communicated hope to each other late at night by banging out Ode to Joy with spoons on the water pipes connecting their cells.

What’s going on? Is little Mikey getting all political here? Is this about the UK Referendum? (Ode to Joy is the anthem of the European Union.)

No. We are thinking about children and teens with selective mutism. Selective mutism (SM) is a severe anxiety disorder where children and teens are able to talk freely and confidently at home, but find it extremely difficult to talk at school. Some specialists describe it as a phobic reaction to the child hearing their own voice in public. It’s a problem I have been involved with for many years, as a speech and language therapist, advisory teacher and eventually as a writer.

Children who experience SM often present the adults who work with them with a serious conundrum: How can we help these children to talk in our school? One natural reaction is to think, ‘If I can just get this child to talk once, then their problem will be sorted.’ Some adults taking this view may even try to trick the child into talking. Take it from me, this is not a good idea. Even if the child does speak, they are likely to feel as if they have been manipulated and will lose trust in the adult. Just like me and the Banco de Sabadell.

So what should we do? Maggie Johnson, specialist speech and language therapist working with children and teens with SM, suggests that the very first action is to talk to the child about their problem, and to explain that many other children feel and behave in the same way. She explains that everyone is going to work together to help the child improve how they talk when away from home. Maggie describes an approach they will try. It’s about working together and particularly about the child being in control of how they move forward with the programme. It’s a very honest and open approach that seeks to build a sense of trust in the child.

You could say it’s more of a Following the Ninth approach.

Now here’s a pure and unadulterated plug for a great product. Silent Children-Approaches to Selective Mutism is a DVD produced by the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA). It features Maggie Johnson and others talking about effective approaches to supporting children and teens with SM. I use this DVD on my training courses and always recommend that anyone wanting to help children with SM should watch it.

Plug over. I hope you didn’t feel manipulated!!

Take care out there!!!


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