You see the downcast eyes, see the careful chair maneuvering to hide behind classmates, and can nearly hear the, “Not me. Don’t call on me” that resonates in that child’s head. They needn’t worry. You’re willing to believe in their invisibility cloak, too.
You have a student who stutters.
Did you know that 1% of the population, including three million Americans, stutter? Or that Ed Sheeran, Emily Blunt, and James Earl Jones have all publicly discussed their own struggles? Or that while the number of girls to boys who stutter is 1:2 in the early years, the ratio is nearly 1:4 by mid-late elementary years?
School-aged students are unlikely to “outgrow” a stutter, and though therapy can provide lots of strategies to improve talking fluency, as well as stress and management tips, it tends to ebb and flow rather than be “cured.”
In the classroom, you’re likely to see this manifest as part word or single sound repetitions (b-b-b-baby), prolongations (SSSSSSaturday), or blocks (long, effortful pauses) and resulting avoidance behaviors (back to that invisibility cloak…)
But here’s the rub. The less practice, the more avoidance, the more likely the issue will persist or worsen. So, how can you draw out the student who stutters without making them, or yourself, uncomfortable? Try these:
- Choral reading: Most children who stutter will find reading aloud as a group much more manageable than independently reading aloud. Position yourself near them to listen for reading fluency within a group. Start each reader off by reading with them (or reading as a group) for the first several words or sentences, then let the child continue on their own. Often, it’s the getting started that’s the toughest part. (Be sure to do this with all of your students, though, so as not to single out the child who stutters.)
- Songs/sing-song rhymes: It’s not a myth that we don’t stutter during singing. If your students are still young enough that songs and rhymes make sense to use, then this is a great time to encourage participation.
- Calm: When you call on a child who stutters, give them all the time they need. Quiet your body language. Quiet your energy. Just. Wait. If the pause goes on past 30 seconds, or if they are clearly struggling and in need of escape, then offer a “Do you want more time?” that they can respond to with a shake. Then, move on matter-of-factly.
- Feedback: It’s important that the child who stutters receives feedback on the content of their answers rather than the delivery, so avoid comments that suggest otherwise. Even “good try” might be misconstrued. Consider more specific feedback like, “I agree with (repeat the section),” or “That’s just what I was thinking,” or “That answer isn’t quite right.”
- Be polite: No one wants their sentences finished for them or to be told, “Collect your thoughts and then talk.” The child who stutters knows what they want to express; they simply have a motor issue that prevents them from doing it easily.
- Be a role model: Use a slow rate of speech and avoid interrupting. It’s more effective to demonstrate than to say, “Slow down.”
- Strategize: Have a meeting with the student and/or a speech-language pathologist to determine the best placement for oral reports. Some students will find it easier to go first because there is less time pressure or build-up of stress. Some might prefer to sneak in the middle of the pack (as an aside, perhaps avoid having them immediately follow a “big act” speaker.) Q&A sessions after a presentation are often the most stressful aspect of public speaking because they require off-the-cuff remarks. You might consider having the child who stutters speak last so you deliberately limit or run out of time for questions. With older students, you can have listeners jot down their questions and have the answers delivered in written format or addressed the following day once there has been an opportunity for rehearsal.
- Size matters: Many children who stutter may dread speaking in front of the entire classroom but will be comfortable in a small group setting. This might be a better opportunity for their classroom participation.
Research suggests that 60% of children who stutter have a close relative that does, too; something to keep in mind during parent interactions. A parent with a history of stuttering may have strong, negative feelings about classroom participation or may be a great support and source of information on how to draw their little one out.