General principles of working with the child who stammers

More simple tips to help the child

When talking with the child, remember the Top Tips from this resource.

More tips

As the key worker aim to talk with him regularly one to one for at least five minutes in a relaxed and quiet atmosphere with nothing else happening to distract him, such as loud background noise. You may find that he is most comfortable sitting down in a special place that he likes, with a favourite toy, with you sitting at the same level. Most settings are now encouraged to provide cosy areas for children to play in, and he probably has one that he particularly likes.

Follow his lead by playing with what he wants to play with and talking about what he wants to talk about. This sense of being in charge helps to build his self-esteem and causes him to think a little about what he wants to play. During this time, encourage him by praising him for what he is good at (e.g.: 'You have a drawn a lovely picture' or 'That was a very helpful thing to do').

When the child is unconcerned about his speech

If the child is not showing any concern about his speech then he should just be encouraged to lead the talk about something familiar and concrete, such as the toy he is holding, and the practitioner should respond to his talking, as with any child.

It is important to build up for the child who stammers the understanding that talking can be a pleasurable ‘happy’ activity. When he is the centre of the adult’s attention and is able to chat along at his own pace, and in his own way, he is more likely to feel good about his talking and see it as valuable. A build up of confidence in talking at this stage may help him to be more resilient about talking if he does not recover from stammering and may make it less likely that he will avoid speaking situations later on.

When the child is struggling to speak

However, if the child is stammering, and is struggling to push out the words and getting frustrated, generally, it is helpful to acknowledge the difficulty with a supportive comment: ‘you did very well with that word’. If the child feels secure that he and his speaking are valued he is more likely to develop the confidence to talk even if the stammering is severe and to be open about his speech and what can help him. Confidence and openness will help him to develop the qualities of resilience and perseverance to manage his speaking if his stammering continues into later years, when the situation around him might be more demanding.

The key worker can best support him if he is struggling by listening carefully to his talking, without apparent impatience and with normal eye contact. Give him time to finish what he is saying without interrupting. Do not finish off words or sentences for him. If the child makes a mistake with a word when talking do not criticise him, just repeat the word, as it should be said in your comment back to him, so he hears the correct version and can recognize that its importance of what he had to say was appreciated.

When the child is stammering severely

Sometimes a child may go through a period of severe stammering and this can be very frightening, as the stammer appears to be unpredictable. The child may feel that his speech is out of control and at such times the teacher's support is particularly important.

When this happens  the teacher should demonstrate that the content of the child's speech is valued, by giving him time to speak and obviously listening to what is said. The teacher can echo a comment by the child in a relaxed, unhurried manner so that the child sees that he can just take his time without rushing, and the other children understand that his contribution is not undermined in its quality by the stammer.

At times of severe dysfluency, the teacher should lower the language demands on the pupil by speaking slowly, keeping language simple and giving the opportunity for monosyllabic answers that allow the child to take part without undue stress.

If speech is extremely difficult to understand, then the teacher needs to listen for key words and feed them back in the form of a closed question requiring a one-word answer, so that it is clear what the child means. In every instance, a comment at the end to show appreciation of the child's contribution will help to maintain the confidence and self-esteem of that pupil. Occasionally the child who stammers may not be able to make himself understood, as the stammer is so severe.

This can be very distressing for teachers to hear as they often feel that the child is causing himself considerable stress. While it is not desirable to make complex language demands on the child during a period of severe dysfluency, his right to express himself at appropriate times should be acknowledged even if occasionally he is not understood.

The other children should also be respectful of this and pay attention. This situation is unlikely to happen very often, as during a period of severe dysfluency, most children who stammer need to be encouraged to speak at all in front of the class.

At the end of such a period of talking and stammering severely, the teacher should simply express thanks to the child in the normal way. At an appropriate time in the 'one to one' situation, the teacher should talk to the child and express appreciation for the effort he had made, thus ensuring that his self-esteem is maintained. Teachers should note that such is the nature of stammering that the same child may be heard speaking quite fluently later in the day.

When the child talks too much

Very occasionally the child who stammers may talk at an inappropriate length or interrupt other speakers as he feels able to speak and wants to express his thoughts while he feels he can. When there is a class policy on behaviour, talking and listening such behaviour can be more easily addressed. Sometimes reinforcement of the code may be given by using visual symbols: one idea is to use traffic light cards: red for 'please do not talk now', amber for 'please prepare to talk',' green for please talk now'. Simple techniques of this kind add a little bit of fun to talking activities and also make it clear to all the children when it is not appropriate to talk, either in the class activity or to the teacher who is otherwise occupied.

When you cannot understand what the child is saying

In some cases, the stammer might make the child’s speech very incoherent and almost impossible to understand. If this happens key words should be listened for and repeated back correctly to show that his talking has been acknowledged and appreciated. The young child must see that what he was trying to say was valued as his personal communication on a topic - if he is not supported so that he understands that is the case, he will lose confidence in the value of his own communication, and can start to believe that it is simply not worth making the effort.