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Old 25.09.2012, 18:37
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8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

My 8 year old son won't talk in school! He's in French language public school in Geneva. We've been here a year now, and he understands pretty much everything that anyone says to him in French, but won't say anything to the teacher or out loud in class.

He's talkative in French with some neighborhood friends, I've heard him. Also he's in a full-day community center program on Wednesday, and he does speak to the kids and helpers in that program - as a matter of fact just last week one of them said that he's doing quite well, is playing well and talking to everyone.

Currently two teachers share the teaching of his school class, plus half the time he's in a French language class, so he's split between 3 teachers. This is unfortunate because it makes communication difficult. I just had a meeting with the head teacher of the regular class, and I saw that he literally doesn't talk to her. She said she just recently started asking him to SAY he needs to go to the bathroom rather than pointing to his crotch.

The same thing happened last year, but now, in year two, he really needs to start talking!

When I ask him why he speaks in his Wednesday program, but not in school, he says, "They think I speak French, so they don't look at me when I talk. At school everybody looks at me".

Has anyone had this type of situation? I'd love some advice. All I could think of was asking the teacher to write a note to me when he's made an effort, and then rewarding him with some video game time when he gets a note.

Thanks for any advice!
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Old 25.09.2012, 18:41
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

Sounds a bit like he's shy in school. Does he have any of his classmates round to play or does he get invites to go to others' houses?

Maybe if he gets close to one or two kids in his class it will start to open him up?

Are you also learning French? If you are, you could show him how difficult it is for you at the bottom of the learning ladder and how far advanced he is by comparison. He could help you with homework. Anything to give him some confidence in this new language.
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Old 25.09.2012, 18:55
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

I know of a little girl also about the same age who is in the same situation. Her mother is Kenyan and her father is Swiss (french speaking). The little girl must have grown up speaking mostly Swahili and english at home, but clearly understands and is capable of speaking french.
However, in school for many years now she will not speak out loud at all. But, she speaks french with the neighborhood children. We visit them and she will not speak french or english with us (my husband and I) and is like this with most other people as well. However, she is very interactive and an extroverted children communicating through pantomime and being very interactive. She squeels, giggles, and plays with us. I have heard that after her parents sat her down and told her of the importance of speaking with the teacher, she will now whisper answers, questions, and her needs (bathroom breaks) to the teacher, without other children overhearing her. This is a start!
Maybe you could convince him of the importance to communicate first with the teacher. He may develop some confidence, even if it is only with whispers.
I can imagine it is a worriesome situation for you, as well as your son. This sort of situation may be more common than we know. I myself (being quite shy at a young age) remember the stresses of just speaking before a class and often cut my own answers short, to the point were my teachers worried about me.
There is not much advice I can give you, but I wish you the best of luck!
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Old 25.09.2012, 19:10
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

Maybe somebody made fun of his French, I would ask him about that
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Old 25.09.2012, 19:40
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

We have just moved our daughter into an international school because of this. Now she is fine, really happy and back to herself. Shes stilll learning to language but is more socially comfortable.
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Old 25.09.2012, 19:53
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?


I used to be a teacher (in England) and I had a fair share of pupils who came to me speaking no English.

I would say (from his remark about everyone looking at him when he talks in school) that he is feeling in some way pressured to talking in school. So therefore what he needs is first of all to have the pressure removed, and secondly to have situations created where he wants to talk!

I think it's sad that the teacher is telling him to tell her he needs a bathroom break (presumably before she allows him to go). Some children are shy of expressing their personal needs. If he is developing a block about talking in French at school in general, forcing him to say in front of the whole class that he needs to go to the toilet is, in my opinion, not the best place to start! Going to the bathroom is a human need and no child should be asked 'say you need the bathroom' before they can go. If the teacher is unhappy about the way he is asking, could she not develop a signal with him (my pupils used to make a capital 'T' with their hands). It seems a shame that this is the one example you have been given by the teacher of a time she is 'pushing' him to talk! I hope that there are other occasions.

I would suggest that you try and agree with the teachers and with your son a set of goals for him to talk. If he feels 'stared at', perhaps the focus should be on his communicating in one-to-one or small group settings. Agree the goals, so instead of him feeling he has to talk 'all the time', he can get used to the idea of talking in some situations... which gradually increase in number.

Also is there something at school he likes doing, some situation that could be created where he is not the focus of attention and where he might start talking? With reluctant speakers, I used to get them to play an audio bingo game where they all (native and non-native speakers) had to repeat the noises they heard, which often 'broke the ice' for the non-native speakers. Are there any kind of collaborative activities going on in the classroom that might encourage him to come out of his shell?

Personally I would not go down the rewards for speaking route, as on the one hand that may well just put more pressure on your son (in that he may come to feel that you are not happy with his behaviour in school and that he is 'failing')... and on the other hand my personal opinion is that you should not reward a child for doing something that they would normally do... it sets a dangerous precedent, because what happens when he is communicating normally at school but still expecting to be rewarded for having talked in school that day! I'm not saying don't praise him of course!
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Old 25.09.2012, 21:42
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

I did something similar at a similar age, we moved to Norway when I was 9. I had never spoken anything but English - and probably didn't really realise there were other languages!
I went to normal school, had additional Norwegian lessons (which I hated as I was taken out of normal class). For the first school year I barely opened my mouth, wouldn't say anything.
Came back after the summer holidays, where I guess I must have spoken mainly English, and speaking Norwegian was no longer a problem.
I think it was because I didn't want to say anything until I could say it properly, better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and confirm it!
I just needed the time to get my skills and confidence to a level where I could just be me in the other language.
Hope things work out for your son, just keep practising the French in places where there is a limited embarrassment factor!
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Old 26.09.2012, 11:04
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

My guess is he is not feeling confident in school-level french yet. It is quite different to have an informal chat about a toy on the playground vs. being put on the spot in class to recite a poem or read part of a book in class. And other kids who are up to speed can be cruel in class by making faces, etc. when he doesn't perform to their level with perfect genevois accent. Perhaps speak to the intensive french teacher and see how he has progressed in academic level french, and intensify this either in school or out of it if necessary.
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Old 26.09.2012, 21:17
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

Thanks so much for all the replies and ideas! I just spoke again to the teachers at the Wednesday program, and they confirmed that he was speaking to the teachers and kids there.

I'll definitely try to talk to the intensive French language teacher. Communication is made more difficult not just by the fact that there's 3 teachers to deal with, but also they have this system of passing a little notebook between the teacher and parent via the student, which is just a miserable system. I think I'll try approaching the principal to try to coordinate things, she seems competent and motivated.

@Vlh22 - I hadn't thought about asking to go to the bathroom being perhaps not the right way to begin pushing him to speak. I was just happy that something was happening. Good point though.

For the rewards idea - yes, it's definitely something we wouldn't keep up for more than a short while. Right now I just think he needs something to get him over the "hump" of first talking in that class. He literally says, "They don't know I speak French, so they'd look at me if I talk in French". So once they know, there wouldn't be a problem maybe?

Changing schools is not an option now. He actually doesn't seem unhappy about school, but if he's not talking, he can't be learning very much.

He got one birthday invite last year, but I think all the kids in the class got that one. There's some neighbor kids that he's played with quite a bit. Also he said he made a friend last week, so that's encouraging.

Thanks again for all the tips - any more, or personal experiences, would be appreciated!
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Old 26.09.2012, 21:52
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

I recently went to a seminar in London, on this exact subject. The speaker was Maggie Johnson from the Kent Community Health Trust

www.selectiveautism.co.uk was the website referred to.

ANd the book: SUpporting Quiet Children by Maggie Johnson and MIcheal Jones

I have just referred to the notes I took, and will mention some of them. I hope I am not misremebering and I hope it is of use for you.

1. Selecetive mutism is seen as an anxiety disorder, a phobia, with a persistant failure to alk in certain situations ( often school.) The children want to speak, but are unable to - become afraid of the act of speaking and will avoid speaking situations.

Contributig factors:a. personality type - sensitive, very cautious, feel a need "to get it right.", a dislike of uncertainty. b. Life events that lead to escalated anxiety - eg: loss, change, separation, disapproval , public scrutiny.

Mainenance: anxiety response is associated with communication. This negative association is reinforced by other reactions.

INtervention: early. united, consistent approach.

SUggestions for intervention included:

making use of puppets - some children will find they are able to talk through the puppet they are holding, and/or to the one being held by someone else.

2. talking through someone that the child does talk to eg: adult asks the childs friend " could you ask X ...? - the idea being that the child will then respond through that person.

3. Providing relaxed one to one situations for noncompulsory speech - such as a quiet reading time ( without the rest of the class listening and watching.)

On a personal basis, I have worked with several very quiet children over the years, two of who I would class as definitely having been selectively mute ( known as elective mutism at that stage) One, a refugee, took 6 months before she spoke ot anyone in the setting - she did smile and she had a silent laugh during this period. The break-through with her was a one on one session of looking at pictures she had stuck in a scrap book. The second was one whom I had been told "He doesn't talk," with staff not knowing at all as to whether he could talk , or not. It took just 3 days for him to utter his first word to me, with him adding 10 more words in a mixture of two languages over the 11 days I was able to spend with him.

It seems to me that the children need to feel safe and to trust the people around the, before they can find a voice.

Not sure where that leaves you with your current school situation, but I hope you realise that this not terribly unusual and that changes can occur.
keep up the situations where your child does feel cofortable and keep up an open dialogue with his school. Best wishes.
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Old 02.10.2012, 17:22
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Re: 8 year old won't talk at school - what to do?

I just wanted to offer you some reassurance as this was our situation up till 4 months ago. My daughter is now 6 and we speak English at home. Even though she had been in daycare since she was 1 year old and understood Swiss German perfectly, she wouldn't speak it. All the way through 2 years of Kindergarten, she was silent. She wouldn't even laugh out loud. She was happy though, had lots of friends and played with them quite happily, just silently. She didn't seem to show any signs of anxiety.

After about 1 year, she started speaking to some friends, but only outside of school. Then we went on holiday to Australia for a month and when we came back, she wouldn't speak German again. About a year later, she suddenly started speaking to her friends outside of school again, then started laughing out loud at school. Then a couple of months later, she just opened her mouth at school and started talking. The funny thing is, now her friends tell her to be quiet

For our daughter, it was a confidence thing. This is also to do with her personality. She likes to know that she can do something well before she does it in public. She still won't speak in her swimming class (outside of school) but I'm not pushing that as I know she's just not that comfortable with people she only sees once a week.

I don't know if there's one thing we did that made her talk in the end. I did encourage her to play with her friends as much as possible, even if she didn't speak. We tried offering rewards, but she didn't seem interested. We also did Bach Flower Remedies - I don't know if you're into that sort of thing - but 2 weeks after she started taking a particular remedy, she started speaking at school. I wanted to go down this route as I felt she had an emotional block regarding speaking German and Flower remedies work on the emotions.

The other thing that might have given her a push was that her teacher casually commented how she was going to go to Primary School, if she wouldn't talk? I think this was a BIG incentive for my daughter, as she was soooo looking forward to Primary School.

I hope some of this helps, even if it's just to know that someone else had a similar experience.
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