You can make a real difference to a child who stammers and their experiences at school. It doesn’t take much to provide the right support once you understand how stammering might affect a child in your class. An added bonus is that everyone in the class will benefit from being in an environment where communication is encouraged and supported.
If you are concerned about a child’s speech and suspect stammering, talk to the parents. Find out if the child is receiving speech therapy. If yes, ask the parents if you can liaise with the therapist. If no, discuss with them the option of referral to a speech and language therapist.
Talk to the child about their stammering in a sensitive and open way and ask what you can do to help. Too often stammering is the ‘elephant in the room’ and a child can grow up feeling there’s something wrong or shameful about having a stammer.
Stammering, or stuttering, is when someone:
- puts extra effort into saying their words
- has tense and jerky speech
- blocks on a sound for several seconds ("... I take the bus every day.")
- stretches sounds in a word ("I went for a wwwwwalk today.")
- repeats parts of words several times ("Hel-hel-hel-hello.")
- stops what they are saying half-way through their sentence
- shows visible signs of tension when trying to get a word out
- has particular difficulty saying their name.
A child who stammers may:
- become anxious, distressed and reluctant to speak
- try to hide their stammer by changing words, saying less or avoiding speaking altogether in some situations, eg, in front of a group.
- 8% of children will experience stammering at some point.
- Around 75 to 80% of children will stop stammering either naturally or with speech therapy.
- Up to 3% of children will continue to stammer into adulthood.
- Stammering is primarily a neurological condition – the ‘wiring’ of the brain is slightly different in people who stammer.
- Stammering runs in families – it is estimated that around 60% of people who stammer have a relative who stammers.
- Stammering usually starts between the ages of 2-5 but can be later.
- Stammering can start very suddenly, overnight, or more gradually.
- Boys are more likely to continue to stammer than girls.
- Referring a child to a Speech and Language Therapist as early as possible is important.
- Stammering is highly variable – it can come and go and often depends on the situation.
In the classroom, put the following ideas into practice – the aim is to reduce any pressure the child may feel when talking:
- Slow down your rate of talking to show all the children in your class there is plenty of time. Don’t ask the child who stammers to slow down or take a breath.
- Give the child plenty of time to say what they want to say and don’t interrupt or finish their sentences.
- Listen to what the child is saying rather than how they are saying it.
- Answering the register may be hard for the child who stammers. Consider alternative ways of responding which everyone uses so they don’t feel singled out.
- Reading out loud can also be tricky – ask the child if they’d like to go first, as waiting for their turn can make them feel anxious. Or they could read together with another child.
- Reduce the number of questions you ask. If you need specific information you could try to give alternatives, eg, "Did it happen in class or in the playground?".
- If you feel anxious when the child is stammering, try not to show it. Remain calm, kind and approachable.
- Acknowledge the stammering in a matter-of-fact way, not making a big thing of it. This helps the child feel it’s OK to stammer. You might say something like, ‘That was a hard word to say, wasn’t it? Well done for getting through it’.
- Include speaking tasks into your lesson planning, where the child is likely to be more fluent. For example, reciting familiar lists like the days of the week or counting; singing; or speaking familiar words with a strong rhythm as in nursery rhymes or poetry.
- Praise the child for things they are doing well – this will help with self-esteem and confidence.
- Be aware that a child who stammers may stammer more when expressing complex ideas, or using new vocabulary or sentence structures.
- Be on the alert for any teasing or bullying in the classroom or in the playground.
Changing from primary to secondary schools can be challenging for any child. For a child who stammers it can be even more so, with many more teachers to get used to, new subjects, a different school routine and new classmates to meet.
Share this information with all the teachers and school staff the child is going to come into contact with, so everybody know how best to offer support.
Have regular friendly informal chats with the child on how things are going and to ask them directly what help they need. This will make a big difference to their well-being and confidence.
Answering and Asking Questions
Children who stammer might not put their hand up even if they know the answer to a question, for fear of stammering in front of the class. They might also keep quiet if they haven’t understood something.
- If a child who stammers does put up their hand to answer a question, try not to keep them waiting too long for their turn as this can increase anxiety.
- If you think they might know the answer to a question, ask them if they would like to have a go at answering it.
- They may need more time to express their ideas, so give them all the time they need and don’t interrupt or finish what they’re saying.
- Listen carefully to what they’re saying rather than how they’re saying it. Keep natural eye-contact even if the child looks away when stammering.
- Go round the class to check if everyone is following OK. This will make the child who stammers more likely to let you know if they haven’t understood something.
- Answering the register may be hard. Consider alternative ways of responding which everyone uses so the child who stammers doesn’t feel singled out.
Reading aloud can be one of the most difficult speaking situations for a child who stammers, as there’s no room to avoid saying difficult words and everybody is listening in. Here are some tips:
- Encourage them to read together with another child – this will makes things easier.
- A classroom policy that encourages a relaxed reading pace may help the child who stammers as well as slow or hesitant readers.
- Work gradually towards reading in front of the class. Reading alone to the teacher or another adult can be followed by reading in small groups, building up to reading in front of the whole class.
Teasing and Bullying
Children who stammer are at a greater risk of being teased or bullied at school, which can have long-term consequences for their mental well-being. Your school will have an anti-bullying policy – make time during personal health and social education (PHSE) lessons to have open discussions about teasing and bullying and how it can be tackled.
If you suspect a child is being teased or bullied, take action immediately.
Speech and Language Therapy
If a child who stammers is currently having speech and language therapy, speak to the therapist to find out what you can do to best support the child. Better still, see if it’s possible to arrange a three-way meeting between you, the child and the therapist so you’re all working together. The therapist might suggest organising a whole class talk about stammering, which the child who stammers could lead on. This can give them the opportunity to educate their classmates about stammering and what they can do to help.
The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering has some great resources for teachers, including a short video and suggestion sheets.
Top Tips for Teachers, produced by Action for Stammering Children.
'My tips for supporting pupils who stammer': award-winning teacher and BSA trustee Abed Ahmed, who stammers himself, gives some suggestions for teachers.
Stammering can be seen as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 and schools therefore have a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments for pupils who stammer. – here are some examples of what these could look like.
Take a look at our library, where BSA members can borrow books and DVDs.