BSA's leaflet for teachers
Stammering (or stuttering) does not develop uniformly with age nor in the same way with different children. Therefore, we suggest that you read the entire leaflet since both sections may have points relevant to your particular child. Most of the recommendations can benefit all children so if it is possible to modify classroom strategies this could reduce the risk of singling out the child who stammers. Liaison with parents and a speech and language therapist is always recommended.
The young child
Many young children speak dysfluently at times, especially when they are under some pressure to communicate effectively. There is no exact point at which normal dysfluency becomes stammering though there are features which enable us to differentiate between the two extremes.
- Normal dysfluencies are usually relaxed repetitions, often of whole words either at the beginning of a phrase or when a child is thinking of how to finish a sentence. These may be more marked when the child is very tired, excited, upset or nervous.
- There is a greater risk of stammering developing when the child frequently gets stuck on words, prolonging or repeating part of the words or putting excess effort into finishing them. It is also worrying when the child seems aware of and upset by the dysfluencies.
However, one of the things that makes it so difficult to say with certainty whether or not a child stutters is that there can be so much variation from day to day and in differing situations. Therefore, it is probably best to play safe. First, discuss the child's speech with the parents to find out if the same difficulties are apparent at home; and if so, discuss whether the parents wish to see a speech and language therapist. Then, consider the following simple ways that parents and teachers can reduce communicative pressure on young children.
- Slow down your rate of talking to convey to all the children that there is plenty of time. Speaking slowly oneself is likely to help the dysfluent child without drawing attention to the stammering by asking the child to slow down.
- Try to get on the same level as the child, both in the physical sense and by speaking in language that can be easily understood.
- Reduce the number of questions that you ask. If you need information from a very dysfluent child and are fairly sure of the content then try to give alternatives, eg. "Did it happen in class or in the playground?". Questions about current work can be phrased as alternatives to the benefit of other reticent children and those with difficulties in formulating sentences.
- Comments upon the emotion or events that are causing the increased dysfluency help the child to feel understood ( eg. "I can see that you're very cross", "your knee hurts"). Comments on specific words or sounds are not helpful.
- There are some speaking situations that facilitate fluency. For example: speaking with another; reciting familiar lists like the days of the week or counting; singing; speaking familiar words with a strong rhythm as in nursery rhymes or poetry; speaking with actions. Sometimes acting allows the child to speak confidently and fluently. Such activities may increase the child's fluency without awareness of any special attention. In general, familiar material that is well within the child's level of ability reduces the communicative stress.
Other things reduce fluency, for example: being interrupted or hurried; competing to speak; fear of the consequences of what's been said; expressing complex ideas; using relatively new vocabulary and sentence structures. Keeping a record of what increases and decreases fluency should give some ideas about how to help a particular child.
Many children have episodes of easy talking. These times provide opportunities for developing oral communication skills. Dysfluent patches are a time to consolidate current achievements in both speaking and reading.
- Some children may need extra help when learning to read, since uncertainty about particular words may precipitate stuttering and the child may have a particular difficulty with phonics. Varied reading strategies are needed to assist fluency by giving the child something constructive to try when faced with a new or difficult word.
- Children of all ages tend to be more fluent when speaking about a personal interest. They may also be helped by demonstrating what they've made or discovered or by using visual aids to support their speaking.
- Try not to feel anxious yourself when a child is having problems. If you can remain calm, kind and approachable the chances are you will be able to support the child through the difficulties in much the same way as you help with all the other crises that are a part of the usual school day. If you are anxious this may fuel the child's anxiety so making things harder for you both.
The older child
It may be quite clear, however, that a particular child has gone well beyond the early hesitant stage of normal dysfluency and is definitely stammering. The child may stammer with obvious physical tension or may try to conceal the severity of the problem by avoiding particular sounds, words or situations or by attempting to hide his mouth while speaking. If this is the case, again, discuss the difficulty with the parents, so that your approach may be consistent with theirs. If the child is attending speech therapy, then the therapist can guide you about a particular child's problem. Whenever possible, discuss any specific difficulties with the child and plan with him some participation in oral work. In general, the aim is for the child to participate as fully as possible yet without feeling under constant pressure from fear of stammering and ridicule.
- When asking the class questions try not to keep the child who stammers waiting too long for their turn since this may increase anxiety and hence stammering. Discuss with the child how to deal with all class questions and discussion sessions.
- Children who stammer may need more time to express their ideas, so during question and answer activities it is helpful if the teacher slows his or her own rate of speech so signalling to all the children that there is no need to hurry.
Children can rely on stammering to cover up lack of knowledge and so should be encouraged to speak to their teacher when they don't understand or know something.
Children often lose eye contact when stammering and it's helpful if teachers don't look away but give the same eye contact as they would if speaking to a child who is fluent.
- Finishing off sentences is usually unhelpful as it reduces self-confidence and increases frustration, especially if the person chooses words different from those intended by the stammering child.
- Where daily registration is causing problems alternative approaches can be discussed with the child.
- When there are opportunities to read aloud in front of the class the child who stammers may wish to read in unison with another child as this will assist fluency.
- A classroom policy that encourages a relaxed reading pace may help the child who stammers as well as slow or hesitant readers.
- It may be necessary to work gradually towards reading in front of the class. Reading alone to the teacher or other adults can be followed by reading in small groups. When the child feels ready, reading to the class can be attempted.
- A child who stammers may find it very difficult to approach teachers either with concerns about work or to be sociable. If teachers can see the child on an individual basis now and again this may help to ease communication in these particular lessons.
- A child who stammers may find it very difficult to initiate conversations with adults and may be too embarrassed to discuss their stammer or problems with work. If teachers can see the child alone, occasionally, this will provide opportunities to get to know the child and to discuss stammering sensitively. This may ease communication in their particular lessons.
- Failures with speaking can overshadow all other achievements and lead to low self-esteem. The teacher's celebration of success or competence in other areas can be encouraging, as well as directing the focus away from stammering.
- Perhaps the most important thing is that the child does not come to believe that stammering is unspeakably bad. Careful, sensitive discussion of the child's difficulties and strengths can do much to reduce the need to hide the stammering and paradoxically, this can lead to increased fluency. The harder children try to prevent stammering the more severe the stammering becomes. The less bothered they are about speaking the more fluent they are likely to be. There is a delicate balance between avoiding the pain of stammering and encouraging a child to take some risks with speaking. It is unlikely that fluency will be experienced without some risks. However, the child should be involved in deciding when to play safe and when to be more adventurous.
One of the things that makes stammering so painful is that it occurs in social contexts. There is no way of keeping it to yourself. Many people who stammer feel ashamed of their speech and so can be very sensitive to teasing. Open discussion between teacher and child may encourage a more light-hearted response to any teasing. It is best to deal with teasing about stammering not as an individual problem but rather include it in discussions and activities about teasing and bullying in general, as in personal health and social education (PHSE) lessons.
If teasing can be dealt with before it becomes a problem then this is always preferable to trying to deal with it after the child has suffered the humiliation of being victimised. A stammering child with few friends is more vulnerable to teasing. Anything that may help such a child make and keep friends is worth trying.
Speech and Language Therapy
The current emphasis in schools on speaking and listening skills can put extra pressure on a child who stammers and so liaison with a speech and language therapist is recommended. A therapist may also help if stammering is interfering with a child's ability to succeed in oral assessments or examinations.
The therapist may not work directly with young children but rather through the parents or carers. Many therapists visit teachers in school to discuss the children who have communication difficulties.
Do you want to learn more about stammering?
The British Stammering Association has a postal lending library for its members and also sells a selection of books, including:
'Stammering - A Practical Guide for Teachers and Other Professionals' (August 2001) Lena Rustin, Frances Cook, Keleman £19.95 paperback (144 A4 pages).
'Stammering - Advice for All Ages' - Renée Byrne and Louise Wright (Sheldon Press, July 2008)
'If Your Child Stutters - A Guide for Parents' - Stuttering Foundation of America. (£2.95 - 56 A5 pages)
'Stuttering and Your Child: Questions and Answers' - Stuttering Foundation of America. (£2.95 - 64 A5 pages)
Our training resource for teachers is at www.stammeringineducation.net