Many misconceptions about stuttering have developed over the years. Treatment techniques have ranged from psychotherapy to ignoring the nonfluencies to saying, as the child is stuttering, "Slow down, take a deep breath, and think before speaking" (Bloodstein, 1981; Luper & Mulder, 1964). Teachers who have worked with children who stutter realize that none of these suggestions works. This article presents information about children who stutter, including a description of who is likely to stutter, the characteristics of stuttering, and techniques that preschool and elementary teachers can use in the classroom to help these students. Sources of additional information are also provided.
Approximately 3 million people in the United States stutter. Stuttering is more common in boys than in girls by a ratio of almost 5 to 1. The vast majority of individuals begin to stutter between the ages of 2 and 6 years; the mean age of onset is 5 years (Andrews et al., 1983).
Teachers working with very young children who stutter realize that many tend to be late in passing their speech and language developmental milestones. These children show a three times greater risk of speech sound errors than nonstutterers. In addition, reports of delayed language development are found more frequently in the case histories of children who stutter. More stuttering occurs on the first sound of the first word in a sentence, longer words, words that carry more meaning, and words that are used infrequently (Andrews et al., 1983).
The frequency and severity of stuttering varies from moment to moment and situation to situation. Children are more likely to stutter when talking with a partner who speaks much faster than they do; using long complex sentences; attempting less familiar vocabulary; talking to a nonattentive listener; speaking in front of a class; or when they are tired or excited.
Initially, children who stutter are no different intellectually or in personality from children who do not stutter. However, as stuttering persists or becomes more severe, it is not uncommon for a child to become socially withdrawn, shy, or anxious. These are reactions to the disorder rather than causal factors. Nevertheless, these reactions can make the problem worse.
Speech begins with a newborn's first cry and develops rapidly during the first several years of life. As children begin to explore their environment, they discover many new and complicated things to talk about and question. The desire to communicate is often far greater than the child's communicative ability. Young children are likely to experience problems with speech sound production, vocabulary, and sentence structure in the early stages of development. Word and phrase repetitions, hesitations, and phrase revisions occur frequently during this time. Sentences such as "Mommy, can I, can I, can I go outside, can I huh?" or "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Billy's ball is in, in the, in the yard and, and, and the dog (pause) ate it" are typical of young children. These nonfluencies occur as the result of confusing thoughts, uncertainty about the event, or a complicated sentence structure. This type of repetitive speech, if produced easily and without frustration, should not be of concern. In most cases, it is typical of the errors that occur in normal nonfluencies while good speech and language skills are developing.
Repetition of sounds and syllables; stretching or prolonging sounds; and speech that is accompanied by tension, struggle, or grimacing are of greater concern. Children who stutter seem to have trouble getting words started. They tend to repeat sounds or syllables rather than whole words or phrases. In addition, they frequently repeat portions of words two or more times before they are able to say what they want (e.g., "Ma-ma-ma-ma.ma-ma-mommy, I want a drink of water").
Children who stutter may also attempt to avoid certain sounds or words by using an unusual number of pauses in their speech, interjecting irrelevant sounds (e.g., "'um" or "ah"), substituting one word for another, or repeating inappropriate or unnecessary phrases. These avoidance behaviors are typically used in an attempt to speak more fluently
Another distinction between normal nonfluency and stuttering is the presence of physical tension in the face, neck, or upper body of the child who is having difficulty speaking or a sense that the child is forcing words out. When children stutter they may attempt to push through the non-fluencies by averting or blinking their eyes, jerking their heads, grimacing, or moving their extremities. Attempts to speak during periods of excitement, fatigue, nervousness, or more formal situations such as talking with an adult are likely to increase the amount of difficulty a child is experiencing.
There is no easy treatment for stuttering, because the causation, type, and severity of nonfluencies vary from child to child. In addition, some children are unaware of their nonfluencies. Although others are aware, they are comfortable with their speech and enjoy participating in classroom discussions. Many are self-conscious at a very early age and fear speaking aloud. Despite this variability, teachers can significantly help a child who stutters by enhancing the child's fluency. This can be accomplished by providing a good speech model, improving the child's self-esteem, and creating a good speech environment.
Provide a Good Speech Model
A speech-language pathologist should be contacted when a child exhibits signs of stuttering or when the parents are concerned about speech fluency. Seek this referral immediately; waiting to see whether or not the child will "outgrow" the stuttering is seldom beneficial. While some children who stutter get better without help, many do not. Early intervention may prevent the child from developing a severe stutter. In its initial stages, stuttering can almost always be treated successfully by teachers, parents, and speech-language. pathologists working together. Generally, the earlier intervention is begun, the shorter the therapy program (Stark-weather, Gottwald, & Halfond, 1990). Contact the American Speech-Language Hearing Association for more information about stuttering. The staff will provide a list of professional services for most geographic areas, as well as bibliographies. The toll-free number is 1-800-638-TALK (8255). Additional information may be obtained by writing the Speech Foundation of America (P.O. Box 11749, Memphis, Tennessee 38111) or by calling The National Stuttering Project (1-800-346-1NSP) or the Stuttering Resource Foundation (1-800-232-4773). These not-for-profit organizations publish excellent brochures and informative newsletters about stuttering.
Bloodstein, O. (1981). A handbook on stuttering. Chicago: National Easter Seals Society for Crippled Children and Adults.
Luper, H.L., and Mulder, R. L. (1964). Stuttering therapy for children. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Meyers, S.C. and Freeman, F. (1985) Interruptions as a variable in stuttering and disfluency. JSHR, 28, 436-444
Starkweather, CW and Gottwald, S. (November, 1984). Parents' speech and children's fluency. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, San Francisco, California.
Starkweather, CW, Gottwald, SR and Halfond, MM (1990). Stuttering prevention: A clinical method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.