Recently, I attended a public forum co-hosted by the Australian Speak Easy Association and the Australian Stuttering Research Centre. The focus was on how to help school-age children who stutter in the classroom.
The event was moderated by Associate Professor Ross Menzies, a clinical psychologist who has been doing some great research on studying the complex relationship between anxiety and stuttering. It also featured talks from speech pathologists from the University of Sydney and the Stuttering Unit of the Bankstown Health Service.
But, for me, the highlight was hearing several adults who stutter recount some of their experiences at school. Not everyone who stutters had difficulties at school – there were some examples of people who had wonderful teachers and peers supporting them at school. But there were some harrowing stories, too, for example about:
- being teased and bullied by other students;
- feelings of dread while waiting for their turn to read aloud to the class or to answer a teacher’s questions;
- worrying about whether teachers and the other children thought they were “slow” because of their stuttering;
- deciding to “go mute”, call in sick, or otherwise avoiding situations like presentations requiring speech; and
- leaving school as soon as possible to “escape”.
Teachers and others who work with children who stutter at school often ask what they can do to help. And because we still don’t know exactly what causes stuttering, there is still no “professional” consensus.
So here are 5 tips from the real experts – people who stuttered at school and were brave enough to share their stories:
1. Don’t think a student is less intelligent because they stutter. There is no link between intelligence and stuttering.
2. Give the student time to speak and maintain eye contact while they are talking to you. No-one likes to be interrupted or have others finish their sentences or look away mid-sentence.
3. Although anxiety doesn’t cause stuttering, it can make it worse. For some children who stutter, it can be really hard to read aloud in class, to answer questions when put on the spot, or to give a class presentation. Have a private conversation with the child and ask him or her whether there is anything you can do to make it easier. If a child is anxious about stuttering in front of the whole class, for example, you might:
- allow the child to give their news or a presentation to a smaller group or just to you; or
- ask the child to read aloud in unison with someone else.
4. Don’t give unsolicited advice to “take a deep breath” or to “calm down”. This kind of advice – which is usually given with the best of intentions – can increase anxiety and make the stuttering worse.
5. Don’t pretend the stuttering isn’t there. Make sure the student is getting appropriate help. Evidence-based treatments are available, but stuttering gets harder to treat with age, with early treatment strongly recommended for school-aged children.
A student might already be in treatment. If so, ask the parents whether you can speak with the child’s speech pathologist for further advice specific to the child and to coordinate care. If not, recommend to the parents that they get in touch with a speech pathologist as a matter of priority.
More resources for teachers
Since playing a person who stutters (or “stammers” as they say in the United Kingdom) in A Fish Called Wanda – and as the son of a man who stuttered and never talked about it – Michael Palin has been a fantastic public advocate for people who stutter for many years. His centre has published some terrific resources about stuttering for teachers, including this video (which could be used in class to educate children about stuttering):
and this fact sheet, which contains a number of suggestions consistent with the tips above.
- Stuttering in Schools – A Resource for Teachers (Australian Stuttering Research Centre)
- 8 Tips for Teachers (The Stuttering Foundation)
- The Lidcombe Program for children who stutter
- The Westmead Program for children who stutter
- My school-age child stutters. What should I do?
- School-age stuttering research update: mixing and matching treatments to get results
- Stuttering and fluency wellness snapshot for school-aged children who stutter
- Stuttering treatments: what works for whom? An evidence update
- My child stutters. Is it because he’s shy? sensitive? hyper?