My tips for supporting pupils who stammer
Award-winning teacher Abed Ahmed talks about his experiences of stammering and offers some great tips for teachers on how to support a child who stammers.
Since the age of four, I have struggled to speak fluently. According to the Equality Act 2010, stammering can be classified as a disability as it can have a “substantial adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” (read Is Stammering A Disability?). However, this has not stopped me from becoming a maths teacher.
Research suggests that around 8% of children and up to 3% of adults stammer. This means that you’ll have pupils and even staff in your school who stammer, though they may try to hide it so that you don’t realise.
My stammer has made me a better teacher. Moreover, my experience could make you one, too.
Every workplace has its challenges and mine is no different. For example, at times a pupil has imitated my stammer – though I should say that 99% of my pupils understand my struggle and are very supportive.
Also, I can’t seem to contribute much in meetings where everyone is seated next to each other. I don’t know why, but my fear of getting stuck on certain words prevents me from speaking – it’s something I am working on. However, I can speak in assemblies with 250 pupils and it’s not a problem. Yes, it’s weird. I cannot explain it. Maybe it is because I am in control of the situation. This just shows how stammering differs in various situations.
But I don’t think these things have held me back. Rather, my stammer has made me a better teacher. Moreover, my experience could make you one, too.
So, what can we do as teachers to support young people who stammer? To begin with, you need to know what someone who stammers may look or sound like.
Some children who stammer may:
- tap their leg or arm with the palm of their hands to help them get into a rhythm
- have tension in their face, eyes, lips and jaw
- elongate sounds in a word (eg, “Mmmmmy name is Aaaaandy.”)
- avoid saying certain words
- block on words (so you’ll only hear silence while their mouth is open)
- repeat sounds or words
- attempt to manage their breathing
- avoid eye contact
- pretend to have forgotten what they wanted to say.
From my experience as a person who stammers, here is some advice I’d like to give teachers:
- Most importantly, treat a pupil with a stammer the same way you treat pupils who do not. No one likes to be treated differently and kids and young people know when you are doing it.
- Never rush pupils to finish their sentences. Be patient and listen. Do not finish off their sentences; no one would like that.
- The more anxious the child feels, the more likely they’ll be to stammer. It can be tempting to say things like “spit it out”, but that’s the worst thing you can say. Rather, give them the time to say what they want to say.
- Don’t tell a child who stammers to breathe slowly or to take their time – they know that themselves. However, you can reassure them that you are there to listen.
- Show them that you are always listening. Ensure you keep natural eye contact at all times. People who stammer, including myself, like to know that we are being listened to.
- Ask the pupil what you can do as a teacher to support them. It is best to do this privately as they’re likely to be pretty sensitive about stammering and might not want to talk about it.
- Try speaking to a pupil who stammers more, even if it’s before a lesson or in the canteen. Every bit of conversation will help them. This will hopefully encourage them to speak more, which is what we want.
- Always encourage them to take part in speaking activities – but you should certainly ask them beforehand, so you know what they’re comfortable with.
- To make your classroom practice inclusive, think of an alternative way to make answering the register easier.
- If doing a reading aloud activity, consider getting your pupils to work in groups or to read in pairs.
- Praise your pupils when they’ve done something good and worth acknowledging. Confidence is key for pupils who stammer.
- Be aware of any bullying that is taking place. Bullying should be dealt with immediately.
These are just a few things you can do to support a child who stammers. If in doubt, you should speak to the SENCO (Special Education Needs Co-ordinator) in your school or your local NHS speech and language therapy service. For details on how to contact them, see Options For Children & Teens.
To anyone who stammers out there – young and old – please never give up on your dreams. We all have a voice worth listening to. I did not let my stammer stop me from being a teacher. If I can do it, then so can you.
Abed is a maths teacher at a secondary school in Birmingham. He won the New Teacher of the Year award at the Times Educational Supplement (TES) School Awards 2019, in June. Read more about his win, and watch his interview on ITV's This Morning.
For more information on supporting pupils who stammer, see our Guide For Teachers.