Nurturing resilience in children who stammer

A young child painting

30th April 2020

To conclude our two-part feature, specialist speech & language therapist Sarah Caughter explains the practical things you can do to develop resilience in children who stammer.

The author, Sarah Caughter
Sarah Caughter

In part one of this feature, Natalie Dade-Greaves talked about resilience as being our ability to cope with and 'bounce back' from life’s challenges, and how important building resilience is, particularly in light of the current global crisis. But what role does resilience have to play in children who stammer?

The research tells us that children who stammer can develop negative attitudes towards their speech from an early age. Some children can experience teasing and bullying because of their stammer. In addition to the everyday challenges all children face, it may therefore be that children who stammer experience more and frequent difficulties. This may have an impact on their confidence, emotional wellbeing and the way they participate socially, as well as their fluency.   

The role adults can play

We know that caring relationships and positive role models in everyday interactions can help build resilience in children. Adults can support children to develop accurate and flexible thinking patterns that help them cope with inevitable challenges. 

As part of my job I train health and education professionals who work with families with children young children in 'Reaching In Reaching Out' (RIRO). This is a programme from Canada that aims to create a culture of resilience in children under 8. Firstly, it looks at helping to build resilience in adults; then at how adults can model resilience in the environment, and finally it teaches specific resiliency skills in children.

Adults can support children to develop accurate and flexible thinking patterns that help them cope with inevitable challenges. 

Children can develop resiliency skills which can help them to ‘bounce back’ in the face of difficulty. These important skills include the ability to:

  • get back to a calm state in a stressful situation 
  • express their emotions
  • identify their thoughts about a situation and to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns
  • to think flexibly
  • to connect with others and build positive relationships
  • to develop a positive self-concept and to reach out to new opportunities and take risks. 

Below are some 'top tips' for parents and therapists to support children in developing some of these skills.

Top tips for developing resilience

  1. Breathe! As adults, we can use breathing techniques to help manage our emotions, reduce anxiety and feel calmer when stressed. There are some mindful breathing exercise videos online which are effective ways to teach children breathing strategies, including Starfish breathing (not to be confused with the Starfish Project) and Breathing Buddies. Remember that the exhalation, or breathing out, is just as important (if not more so) as the in breath.
  2. Work on building your own resilience and remember this is an ongoing process. 'The Resilience Factor' by Shatte and Reivich (2002) is a useful book for adults to learn ways to boost their own resilience. 
  3. Model how to talk about your feelings. Children learn from the adults around them. If we show them that it’s okay to talk about how we feel, we can help them to understand that all feelings are normal and accepted. Talking about other people’s feelings (eg in stories or TV programmes) can also help with this.
  4. Help children to express their feelings. Children may find it easier to express their emotions in ways other than talking about them. Drawing a picture, using Playdough or using puppets can all be creative outlets. 
  5. Help children to be flexible in their thinking. Children can sometimes show 'all or nothing' thinking at times. You can support them to become more flexible thinkers and explore other ways of thinking about things by using questions. For example, if a child says they had a bad day at school, acknowledge this and then ask 'Which part of your day was OK?
  6. Encourage children to be kind to themselves by asking 'What would your best friend say to you?' or 'What would you say to your best friend if they were feeling the same way you are?'
  7. Find the good stuff. Write down one thing every day that you are pleased to notice. Shifting our perspective to what’s working well helps to boost our mood and recognise our strengths and resources. You can encourage children to do this too (eg by writing words or drawing pictures).
  8. Give authentic and descriptive praise to build childrens' confidence. Be accurate and specific in your description (avoiding 'general' praise words such as good/brilliant/fantastic), and focus on effort and the process of learning. For example, saying 'You concentrated really hard on learning how to pedal and keep your balance. You showed lots of determination!'
  9. Encourage a 'can-do' attitude by supporting children to take risks, try new things and see making mistakes as learning opportunities.
  10. If you’re a parent or carer, check out the RIRO website for more information and resources. For professionals working with young children, come on the next RIRO courses at the Michael Palin Centre.

We all have the capacity for resilience but it needs to be nurtured to grow, and it’s an ongoing process. At different times of life and in different situations, we will need to develop specific abilities more than others. It’s important to take care of ourselves so that we can support children (professionally or as parents) by modelling resilient responses ourselves. This will help children to develop their own resilient thinking patterns, embrace challenges, bounce back from difficult times and reach their full potential.

Sarah Caughter is a specialist speech & language therapist at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering.

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