Have you ever come across a child or even an adult who seemed to have a little trouble getting their words out quite right? Maybe it’s your own child or one of your students. How did you feel? A little helpless? Not sure what to do? Do I look away? Should I say the word for them? Maybe I should change the subject and that’ll take the pressure off of them? It’s very normal to have these thoughts because we rarely encounter people with communication difficulties, and most of us have never been taught about them or how to help. Unless we have had a personal relationship with a person who stutters and has learned by experience, we wouldn’t typically have that knowledge.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) defines a stuttering disorder as ‘an interruption in the flow of speaking characterized by specific types of disfluencies, including repetitions of sounds, syllables, and monosyllabic words, prolongations of consonants when it isn’t for emphasis, and blocks, or inability to initiate sounds. These disfluencies can affect the rate and rhythm of speech and may be accompanied by negative reactions to speaking; avoidance behaviors, escape behaviors, such as secondary mannerisms, and physical tension.’
This brings us to the question ‘So how does that person who is stuttering feel?’
“Children and adults who stutter also frequently experience psychological, emotional, social, and functional consequences from their stuttering, including social anxiety, a sense of loss of control, and negative thoughts or feelings about themselves or about communication,” according to ASHA.
Like anyone else, if they are embarrassed by the way they talk, then they are more likely to get stuck or avoid speaking altogether.
According to The Stuttering Foundation, approximately 1% of the population, 70 million people worldwide, according to the Stuttering Foundation. This means that you will likely meet someone with a stuttering disorder at some point in the future. Luckily, there are steps we can take in real-time, as the listener, to help minimize these negative feelings and improve the confidence of the child who is stuttering so they can communicate more freely. In this post, I will share 7 things you can do as a listener or educator to help a child who stutters communicate more effectively.
1. Do Not Rush the Conversation
One of the best tactics you can use to help a child who stutters is to reduce time pressure in the communication environment. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
- First, you can simply set the pace of the conversation in a relaxed manner. Give the child enough time to get their thoughts out.
- Avoid interrupting the child when they are speaking. Do NOT finish their sentence for them (unless they have told you this is helpful), and DO NOT change the subject for them.
- Maintain eye contact, so they know you are still engaged and interested in what they have to say. Then, give it a few seconds before you respond, to demonstrate no one is in a hurry.
- Finally, try not to ask several questions in a row when it’s your turn to talk. Keep it to one at a time. You can also use modified questions such as “I wonder what kind of things you learned at school today,” or “I bet that your sister would like to hear about what you had for lunch.” This type of conversation can encourage expression without the pressure of a direct question.
2. Speak Slowly
Another way to help a child who stutters communicate more freely is to pay attention to your own speech and try to model a decreased rate. Not to suggest you slow down to a robotic pace, but a more natural way to do this is adding pauses to your sentences, where a comma might go. Break up your sentences into smaller parts and pause in between. Think of how Mr. Rogers or Barack Obama sounds when they are speaking. This also helps the child see that the conversation isn’t hurried and can help them mirror this behavior in their own speech, which in turn can aid their fluency.
3. Rephrase & Praise
Focus on WHAT the child is saying, not HOW they say it. You can show the child that they got their message across this by rephrasing what they said or praising the language that was used instead of just the fluency. This shows that you heard them, you’re listening, and that you value what they have to say.
4. Be Accepting
If it is your child that stutters or a student in a class you teach, let them know it is OK to stutter! Be accepting. No one has perfectly fluent speech all of the time. One way you can do this is to point out moments when your own speech is a little bumpy and say something like, “See, it’s ok to speak a little bumpy, as long as the person you are speaking to gets the message”.
When a child who stutters knows that it is accepted, they are more likely to communicate more comfortably focus on WHAT the child is saying, not HOW they say it. You can show the child that they got their message across this by rephrasing what they said or praising the language that was used instead of just the fluency. This shows that you heard them, you’re listening, and that you value what they have to say.
5. Have 1:1 Conversations
Sometimes 1:1 conversations are hard to manage in our daily lives. But as an educator, you should make sure to schedule 1:1 conversations with the student who stutters to show your support. The Stuttering Foundation suggests that teachers have a conversation with the student and ask what support would help in the classroom. This is a perfect time to let them know it is OK to stutter.
Just like learning other skills, you might stumble on your speech in class which is perfectly acceptable. Work with the student to help them choose situations they would feel more comfortable volunteering for – maybe they commit to answering 1 question/week at first. Would the student like to give oral presentations to smaller groups of peers? Help the student be their own advocate to express what would help them.
6. Avoid Asking Stutterers to Read Aloud in Groups
This recommendation is mostly relevant in classrooms. Educators should avoid the “down the aisle” style of oral reading or participation in class. This refers to having students read aloud taking turns by how they are seated in the classroom. Reading aloud in front of others can be very stressful for a student who stutters. Waiting may cause increased speech anxiety as the student is trying to prepare for their turn.
7. Modify Reading Assignments
As we highlighted in number six, reading aloud in front of others can be very stressful for a student who stutters. As a result, educators should modify reading fluency assignments. It is better to assess this student’s reading fluency individually, to reduce pressure, which in turn will give you a more accurate picture of reading fluency. Additionally, to gain a true assessment, videotape or record the student’s reading segments, and subtract moments of stuttering from the overall time of reading. For more information on this subject, please visit this resource from the National Stuttering Association.
Our children and students have enough stressors when it comes to the pressures of the world today. If there is something we can do to help those with communication challenges feel more comfortable and confident expressing themselves at home and at school, we need to do it. You don’t have to be a speech-language pathologist to practice the simple strategies listed above, and it might make a world of difference to a child trying to find their voice.
If your child is demonstrating difficulty and frustration with their speech or language, please refer them to a speech-language pathologist. Educators, if your school is experiencing staffing shortages, we can help. Amplio can provide speech therapy services for your students using the Amplio Learning Platform for Special Education. Additionally, we provide the Amplio Learning Platform including evidence-based curricula and programs for use by your school and district as well. Amplio enables educators to deliver adaptive, individualized instruction, designed to accelerate student learning and set them on a path for success. To learn more about how we can help, schedule a personalized consultation with one of our teaching and learning experts.
The following resources were used in the creation of this this article:
- The Ripple Effect of Stuttering: A Community-Based Approach Recorded May 12th, 2020 Presenter: Craig Coleman, MA, CCC-SLP, BCS-F, ASHA Fellow; & Mary Weidner, PhD, CCC-SLP SpeechPathology.com Course #9286