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A short story about a little girl in elementary school. She sat in the middle row quietly looking down at her desk as the rest of the class engaged in a board exercise being presented by the teacher.  This little girl was not disruptive at all but rather quietly moving her pencil back and forth across a blank sheet of notebook paper.  The children around her were completely non-reactive to her disengagement and continued to focus on the teacher.  After several minutes went by, the teacher noticed the little girl and called on her to participate.  The little girl was quietly unresponsive, so the teacher moved on to a different student.

All too often little girls and boys like the one in this example are overlooked as a possibility for needing mental health services.  Why?  They are not a “behavior problem”.  These children often dissolve into the background while their more vocal counterparts get their needs met through negative and positive behaviors.   I like to call them “the silent ones”.

There’s an old saying that states “closed mouths don’t get fed”.  I think this has become a cultural and societal norm.  “The silent ones” do not present an overt concern and do not hinder the overall function of a classroom.   They may, however, be experiencing something significantly internally painful or have a past or current trauma.  They may not speak the class language well enough to engage or they simply may be shy and introverted.

As teachers, parents and mental health professionals, we must work together to determine the immediate needs of “the silent ones”.  The following are some easy steps to supporting “the silent ones”:

  • Identify – Determine who “the silent ones” are.  This is best done by teachers.  If there is a classroom full of disruptive behavior, it may be a little difficult to differentiate between the quiet, well-behaved child and the unusually quiet child who may need help. However, with time and persistence, it is possible.
  • Assess – Once the student has been identified, the teacher is encouraged to talk to the student individually in order to gather information on the child and try to gain some insight as to why the child is frequently disengaged and silent.
  • Refer – Once the teacher has gathered information, a meeting with the parents and the school counselor is helpful in developing a plan which may include a referral to mental health services.

Sometimes when we focus on the children who we perceive as giving us a hard time, we overlook the children who are having a hard time.  Don’t forget “the silent ones”.