What helps my covert stammer at school

A young woman looking at a computer screen

15th July 2021

Olivia More describes what it's like at school with a covert stammer, and gives ideas for working with your teachers to create a safe space for stammering.

I started stammering when I was about 6. At the time I was pretty much oblivious to it; no one really mentioned it to me and I just viewed it as a mild frustration which would disappear once I grew older. 

But my stammer didn't leave overnight and I've come to accept that I will probably stammer for the rest of my life. I hope that one day I'll be more open about it but for now I'm a 'covert' stammerer — this means that when talking to most people, I do anything I can to make sure they don't find out I stammer.

Covert, or 'interiorised', stammering is quite common; I've met other people with stammers like me who go to great lengths to make their speech appear 'normal'. Of course, appearing fluent when you naturally are not can be quite difficult, especially in situations where you need to speak a lot, like during job interviews or when starting new schools. 

In circumstances like these it's hard to remain covert. A lot of people with stammers dread being asked their name and other very specific questions, as they can't 'word-switch' and give a different answer that's easier to say.

Being covert at school

At the school I've just left, it felt like I had just two options: talk and risk being mimicked and made fun of again or remain silent and have zero opportunities to speak if I wanted to. My family spoke to the school and asked if there was any way to include me a bit more, for example letting students occasionally use whiteboards to communicate their answers. But nothing really came from this. 

When I looked for support online, it seemed that most of the resources available were assuming the person was comfortable with being upfront about their stammer.

When I started looking at sixth form options at other schools and colleges, I felt I would just be left out again. However, after my parents contacted my chosen sixth form and told them about my stammer, they were really eager to be inclusive and were far more helpful than my old school. They even asked what adjustments could be made to make it easier for me. My mother and I put together a word document with some information about stammering and ways people could help, which they then sent to the other teachers. 

Things that helped me

When I looked for support online, it seemed that most of the resources available were assuming the person was comfortable with being upfront about their stammer. There wasn't much about supporting people with covert stammers. So, here's a list of the things that helped me: 

  • The school, together with my mum and me, spoke about giving everyone name labels at my sixth form introduction day. I was very reluctant at first as I thought the other students would stereotype me or think less of me for having a stammer. But no one seemed to and it was a relief to know that if I stammered they would understand why. I found it really helpful as I didn't have to keep introducing myself to new people (a common fear for people who stammer). 

I fully intend to find my voice at sixth form and try and care a little less about the 'what ifs'.

  • It was also useful that I wasn't put on the spot and didn't have to tell everyone three interesting facts about myself or something like that; there was never an occasion where I was forced to speak, but there were still opportunities for me to talk if I felt comfortable.
  • The head of sixth form spoke to the students, telling them in advance about my stammer and how to help me feel comfortable. The students suggested a game for us to play (Wink Murder) on the introduction day, which was really helpful as I'd been dreading the small talk. 
  • During one of my taster lessons, I put up my hand and blocked when chosen, and the teacher let me write down the answer. This made me feel part of the conversation. 
  • At my sixth form interview (which took place over Zoom) I was allowed to type my answers in advance and also use the chat function without being marked down for it. This was helpful — if I'd had to speak, I would have tried to change and shorten my answers to make them easier to say, which might have impacted the interview and my performance negatively. Having to alter answers is one of the most frustrating things for me when I try to hide my stammer; I've purposefully given wrong answers when put on the spot because I couldn't say the right ones. 

It's great that some people who stammer are able to openly stammer at school; however, it's easy to get stuck in a loop of anxiety about giving it a go even when you want to. I fully intend to find my voice at sixth form and try and care a little less about the 'what ifs'. 

But if you're at school or sixth form, hopefully this article might give you ideas about ways in which teachers can create a safe space for you to gradually be heard without constant pressure and worry about getting your words out.

(Photo posed by a model: Courtesy of Annie Spratt on Unsplash.)

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