My four-year-old refuses to speak

Code of silence at kindy ...
Code of silence at kindy ... Photo: Getty Images

It’s been two terms of kindergarten and still she will not speak. From the moment we step inside the kindy gates, she hides her beautiful voice from the world.

At first, my husband and I were not too concerned. We just thought she was being shy. We thought she was overwhelmed and would slowly open herself up to those around her. We were convinced that by the end of second term her words would be flowing freely. Oh, how wrong we were.

Occasionally, I ask her if she’s told her best friend something silly we did on the weekend, but her reply is always the same: “I do not talk at kindy. I never will”.

Instead, she has developed her own form of sign language. She points, she nods, she acts out what she’s thinking. She pulls her friend gently by the arm, she makes pop-off sounds and giggles, but no words are ever exchanged. She is completely engaged at kindy, sits out the front of the class and is very aware of what everyone’s up to, she tells us with much excitement as soon as she gets home. The other kids in her class have begun to accept that she will not talk to them, yet they still ask us why? Sometimes I just want to shout at her: “Please speak to them. Let them know how awesome you are.” But I don’t.

Ever since she was born, she’s been strong willed. When she makes a decision, no amount of bribery or reasoning will make her budge. She is very stubborn. So, when she tells me she will not talk at kindy, I believe her.

And that’s where the problem lies. According to a speech pathologist, Miss 4 is a rule maker. She makes rules and then stubbornly sticks to them in order to feel secure and in control of her surroundings. It helps keep anxiety at bay. Forcing her to break her rules will only do more harm. She will feel like she failed.

The speech pathologist has since suggested a range of measures to deal with her refusal to speak. These include:

Ignoring the behavior

No longer do we discuss her not talking, in front of her, it just adds fuel to the fire. It reinforces her commitment to the rule she’s set.


Don’t put her on the spot

Teachers have now been asked not to push her into speaking. They now gently encourage her to participate and she is given a range of options to communicate to them in a way she feels comfortable.

No bribery

By giving her lots of attention about not speaking, it encourages her to continue making rules for herself when life gets tricky.

Give her options

She is now encouraged to communicate in any way, instead of talking. By asking her to whisper or sing or make sounds, it helps her to communicate without breaking her rule or feeling nervous or anxious.

Encourage her

When we drop her off now we stay a little longer and slowly we’ve been able to encourage her to speak quietly just to us. Occasionally, she will let one of her classmates or teachers hear her, but only every now and then.

Facilitate friendships

We’ve been working hard to encourage Miss 4 to form friendships with others in her class so she feels more comfortable.

Video messages

It’s also been suggested to ask Miss 4 to pre-record songs or show and tell, prior to class. We’re building up to one to show to her class, but recently she allowed us to tape this one for her teachers. They had never heard her voice before. You can see her singing I am Australian on the video below.

This video makes my heart melt. It reinforces to me that she is doing okay. She is bright and funny, a quick learner who has no language problems (trust me she’s the biggest talker in our family) and she’s going to be fine. I just hope she doesn’t make a similar rule for when she starts school later this year.

Is your child a rule maker too? How do you approach this challenging behaviour?