Success Story: A Student’s Journey to Reclaim Her Voice

“Looking back on my work with Jennifer, I can honestly say this has been one of the most profoundly healing experiences of my tutoring career, if not my life.” – Catherine Bryson, Canada

How fitting that I should work for a company called Tutor Doctor. My experience tutoring one exceptional student over the past two years has been healing for her, and perhaps just as healing for me.

This journey began when the student (I’ll call her Jennifer to protect her privacy) was in Grade 2 and had only just arrived from China. At the time I accepted the assignment, I was told that Jennifer had a rare condition known as Selective Mutism (SM). In fact, this disorder affects only 7 percent of the population.

A child with SM will not speak to strangers, teachers, peers, and others, even when prompted to do so. Often the child will only speak to close family members or friends of the family, and even then, not when strangers are present.

SM is not to be confused with autism, although some children with SM may also have autism. It is not the result of a language or speech impairment either, even though 30 to 70 percent of children with SM have such an impairment. Rather, SM is a condition that lies at the extreme end of the anxiety spectrum. The child truly wants to speak, but he or she literally cannot get the words out.

As Jennifer’s ESL tutor, I was asked to combine teaching her English with relaxing activities such as crafts or baking. It turned out that Jennifer’s assessment revealed an unusually high visual sense, so art was a perfect fit for her. Since I’ve always enjoyed these activities, it was an approach that seemed ideal to me as well.

I also asked Jennifer’s parents’ permission to contact an SM specialist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and eventually she was placed in the capable hands of a doctor trained in the treatment of SM. This short video explains SM and presents effective strategies for treating children with the disorder.

Through art and books, Jennifer eventually overcame her anxiety, and today she reads aloud to me in her brave and beautiful voice. Looking back on our time together, I can honestly say this has been one of the most profound experiences of my tutoring career, if not my life. I believe the “Tutor Doctor” name is symbolic of a relationship between the tutor and the student that is ultimately both healing and rewarding.