How stammering affects children and what schools can do to help
Stammering or stuttering, as it is called outside the UK, is a serious communication difficulty that can undermine the attainment, self-esteem and social development of children and young people.
Stammering varies in severity and type with the individual child but the following characteristics are common:
- repetition of whole words – “when, when, when, are we going?”
- repetition of single sounds or parts of words – “d-d-don’t d-d-do that!”
- stretching sounds in a word – “I like that s-s-story.”
- blocking sounds, when the child’s mouth appears ready to speak but no sound emerges for several seconds – “—-I got a book.”
Stammering can come and go even in the same conversation and this may be confusing when staff are monitoring a child’s speaking.
Support for stammering
Referral to a speech and language therapist who specialises in stammering is essential for all pupils who stammer. School staff should always work in partnership with the therapist. Recovery is most likely during the early years when modern therapies are very successful in helping a child to overcome stammering completely.
When does it begin?
Stammering occurs in every language and culture throughout the world at a rate of around one per cent of the adult population. Current research is clear that the cause of stammering has a physiological basis in the brain structure. It usually starts in childhood, between two and five years of age, when about five per cent of children may go through a phase when they seem to stammer. Some of these children will recover naturally but all of them should be assessed by a therapist to judge which of them need help to recover. Initially, it affects boys and girls equally; later on, there are about four or five times as many boys who stammer as girls. Stammering can run in families.
Children do not start stammering because they are more anxious and nervous than other children. They have the same spread of personality traits and range of intelligence as children who do not stammer. However, fear of stammering can cause the child to worry and be anxious, which in turn can trigger further episodes.
Top Tips for supporting children who stammer
- Give the child time to finish and do not interrupt or finish off words.
- Listen attentively and echo back some content so that the child feels that what s/he said is more important than how s/he said it.
- Use the child’s name frequently to reinforce his/her sense of identity as someone who is recognised by you as an individual.
- Maintain normal eye contact and avoid showing impatience, such as by frequently nodding or getting on with another task while the child talks.
- Ensure that body language is relaxed and open, as non-verbal communication conveys important messages to the speaker about the attention and interest of the listener.
- Slow your own speech with natural pauses, signalling that there is no need to rush.
- Give the child time to think before answering a question so s/he can think about the answer.
- Allow the child to make one word answers when s/he is obviously having a day when the stammer is severe.
- As children do not stammer when speaking in unison with one or more pupils, provide opportunities for this, so s/he can hear his/her voice working normally and gain in confidence.
- If the child is struggling to speak, acknowledge the effort s/he is making with a kind comment.
- Judge when the child seems to want to talk about his/her speech and offer the chance to do so.
- Notice when the child appears to be communicating some need for support through his/her behaviour. The child may feel worried about his/her speech without being able to express that anxiety directly and behaviour may change as a result of this worry.
- Carefully monitor for any teasing or bullying and respond effectively.
Creating a communication enabling environment
Don’t make an ordeal out of registration by demanding a set reply
A choice of responses should be given to all the pupils – for example, speaking a personal response or raising a hand. The child who stammers, knowing that s/he need not answer in a set manner may choose to do so without stress.
Give all children the opportunity to pass on information to a teacher privately. Children who stammer may become particularly anxious when aware that other children are listening.
It is worth discussing with the therapist and the child’s parent whether a simple card could be used to indicate this need should the child feel unable to speak.
Effective classroom management should ensure that all the pupils respect each other and follow a code for good talking and listening skills so that they do not make fun of the child who stammers.
All children should be aware that they are allowed to use an alternative strategy for ordering food, such as pointing at their choice. The child who stammers may find this helpful and may prefer to do so, or as there is no pressure to talk, may speak and request it.
The Early Years
The aim is to build the child’s confidence in participating and to work with a therapist to overcome the stammer. If the child is appearing distressed then s/he should be given the opportunity to talk about his/her speech and work out ways in which s/he can join in speaking and listening activities. Hearing his/her voice working normally in choral speaking and singing activities will build confidence.
The primary school pupil
Speech management strategies should balance support with challenge, so that the teacher encourages a step by step approach to oral activities – for example, moving from talking to a friend in a task to talking within a larger group. If possible, some one-to-one support should be provided so that the child can talk about any anxieties and develop strategies for particular oral tasks.
The secondary school pupil
In adolescence, pupils are more likely to be self-conscious about their stammer and may suffer feelings of shame and anxiety. These may be more of a problem than the actual stammering as continuing stress and worry can lead to behavioural issues, with boys being most likely to act out and girls to become withdrawn. An open attitude to the problem really needs to be in place from school entry so that a trusted member of staff can work with the student to help with issues that arise, and ensure that all subject tutors understand. The requirements of GCSE oral work cause great stress and strategies for support should be negotiated and worked out with the student.
Cherry Hughes is Education Officer at the British Stammering Association (BSA). For resources, advice and information on stammering, visit: