by Ian Roth & Deryk Beal

Bullying can take many forms, can be directed at anyone, and can seemingly come from anyone. Bullying can be a deliberate, vindictive, overt act or it can be more covert, such as a look of condescension or a patronizing tone in someone's voice. Bullying can be physical, it can be verbal, it can be a look of intimidation, or it may be nothing more than social alienation (Langevin, 1999). Children who stutter (CWS) comprise only a small group of children who are teased. Nevertheless, a large majority of these children do get bullied on account of their speech difference. According to a large study done in Britain, an overwhelming majority -- 82 percent -- of a group of 324 CWS reported having been bullied at some period in their school lives, with 11 to 13 year olds being targeted more than any other age group (Mooney & Smith, 1995). Marilyn Langevin at the Institute of Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) in Edmonton found almost identical numbers in her studies (Langevin, 1998). It is worth note that the incidence of teasing is substantially higher among CWS than it is among the general school population, whose incidence of victimization is somewhere between nine percent and 35 percent, depending on which studies are considered (Langevin, Bortnick, Hammer, & Wiebe, 1998). Among the CWS who reported that they have been bullied because of their stuttering, the most frequent type of bullying was imitation (Langevin et al., 1998) and name-calling (Mooney & Smith, 1995).

The role of speech-language pathologists with respect to teasing is a little bit vague, and for that reason it is an issue that may get ignored. Still it is the job of the speech clinician to act as a resource for the clients, parents of clients, and teachers (Lew, 1998). As such, speech pathologists are responsible for educating them, providing strategies to minimize bullying situations, as well as providing strategies regarding how to deal with bullies. These responsibilities must, of course, be complemented by assessing and providing treatment to the client who stutters. At times, speech pathologists may be expected to speak to a class about the nature of stuttering and why it is wrong and unfair to tease people about their stuttering (Murphy, 1998). This is discussed in greater detail below.


Children, especially those eight years old and above (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997), often experience feelings of shame and a reduced self-esteem when they are excluded from the peer groups that emerge at this age. Children who stutter often feel inadequate as speakers, and therefore their self-esteem tends to be low anyway. But because they stutter, other children tend to exclude them from their groups. This has a snowball effect whereby feelings of being an inadequate speaker quickly evolve into feelings of being an inadequate person. When other children tease CWS, however, or even when they receive more covert reactions to their speech their self-esteem tends to decrease further (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997). In a recent study (Langevin, Bortnick, Hammer, & Wiebe, 1998), a sweeping 81 percent of the children who reported that they were teased about their stuttering admitted "feeling bad" after the teasing.

Children at the preschool level tend not to have many self-esteem issues, even if they stutter, and even if they are teased. The reason for this is that preschoolers are still very focused on their parents. As long as there is acceptance and support at home, teasing outside of the home tends not to affect preschool-aged children's self-esteem (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997). Furthermore, while their cognitive capacities allow them to know that they are individuals and that all individuals are different in some ways, they cannot fully comprehend just how different they are from children who do not stutter. Thus, teasing does not have as strong an impact on the very young stutterers as it will when they are older.

When the children reach school age, however, parents become less important in the children's lives and peers take over their primary focus. But, any deviation from the ‘norm' in a peer group can result in a child's being excluded from the group. This will have an enormous impact on a child's self-esteem because s/he has relinquished some of the acceptance at home in favour of peer groups at school. If the peer groups do not embrace the child, s/he will feel ostracized from the class; the child will feel like s/he does not belong anywhere.

The school aged CWS will also begin to display secondary behaviours. Tensing and forcing tend to emerge around the age of eight. This makes speech sound even more different from other children the same age. This obvious difference only invites more teasing from peers, causing the child to feel more self-conscious, and the tensing and forcing to worsen (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997). It is recommended for children at this age to be referred to a psychologist for counseling if they are becoming depressed. These are extremely formative years for the child socially, and to be ostracized by what seems like everyone in the child's life can be permanently scarring. Other ways that a child can learn to deal with being teased involve preparing him/her for these situations with various reactions. Also, by focusing on the child's areas of strength and downplaying the stuttering aspect of their lives, the CWS can learn that they are a more than just a stutterer, and that they have strong qualities as well. Something else to remember is that if a child is able to discuss stuttering openly, s/he has less to hide, and therefore should feel less shame. Finally, one should keep in mind that treatment to improve fluency should be ongoing, regardless of how the teasing is being dealt with.

Arun Khanna, the co-ordinator of a self-help group run through the Stuttering Association of Toronto, argues that self-esteem usually increases again by the time stutterers reach late adolescence (A. Khanna, personal communication, May 11, 1999). The reason for this, he says, is that this is when people who stutter (PWS) tend to develop identities that go beyond the stuttering aspect. For adolescents and adults who continue to stutter, get teased, and have low self-esteem, speaking with others who stutter, for example in self-help groups, can be an extremely worthwhile activity because it allows them to acknowledge that there are others who encounter the same daily difficulties as they do. These groups may also be the first group to accept and embrace a stutterer after being rejected from so many peer groups as children. Self-help groups also give PWS an opportunity to discuss various coping strategies that have been successful for some people. Finally, being among other PWS exclusively allows stutterers to discuss and joke about their experiences without having to worry about being teased (A. Khanna, personal communication, May 11, 1999).

Strategies for Parents

Preventative Measures

Stuttering is most likely to begin when a child is between two and five years old. Young stutterers are not typically aware of their disfluencies and have not yet developed an image of themselves as communicators. As children get older, they begin to develop an awareness of themselves as communicators. The self-image of a child who stutters will be influenced by the stuttering, as well as the teasing that s/he will eventually experience as s/he begins to interact with peers on a regular basis. Fortunately, as mentioned above, preschoolers draw strength and support from their parents more than peers (Starkweather & Givens-Ackerman, 1997). This means that teasing by peers, siblings, or even teachers will not affect them as much as when they are older. Parents are able to use this strong relationship with their preschool-aged children to build an open and honest relationship. They should ensure that their children know that they are willing to listen to and help them with any issues that may arise concerning stuttering or teasing. Providing a forum for discussion of stuttering and of teasing demystifies the subjects and teaches the child that stuttering is not "wrong" or a personal fault that must be kept secret (Mullenmaster, 1999). Parents can explain to their children that there are other people who stutter and name examples of successful people who stutter (Murphy, 1998). This teaches children that stuttering does not have to constrain what they want to do, and that it can be overcome. Parents should also explain to their children that they are not alone in being teased and that although the teasing may focus on their stuttering, the same bullies would likely tease them about something else if they did not stutter (Williams, 1992). If possible, parents should tell their children stories about how they or someone they know have been teased or bullied. It is important to send the message that they are not the only ones who feel rejected or targeted (Lew, 1998).

There are precautions that parents should take when raising a child who stutters. Parents should speak openly about the child's stuttering, but should not force the issue if the child is not ready to contribute to the discussion (Mullenmaster, 1999). Also, when interacting with the child, parents should ensure that their non-verbal expressions match their verbal messages. Some parents have negative non-verbal reactions to their children's stuttering that may send negative or mixed messages when combined with positive verbal feedback (Starkweather & Givens-Ackerman, 1997). Although parents are encouraged to be open and honest about stuttering, they should ensure that they themselves are accepting of the stuttering in order to maintain their supportive roles.

Reactive Measures

Parents are often unaware of teasing that goes on, and only talk with their children about the issue to a limited extent, if at all (Olweus, 1993; Langevin et al., 1998). Parents should not let teasing from siblings or peers go unrecognized, and if a parent sees fit to address the bullies him/herself, this should be done in private (Mullenmaster, 1999). Also, before sending their children to school, parents should take it upon themselves to inquire about the school's policies on teasing, and work with the classroom teacher and principal to ensure that the policies are upheld and meet the needs of their children (Rustin, Botterill, & Kelman, 1996). Finally, parents, as well as teachers, should not give special treatment to children who stutter. This only emphasizes that they are different, and may, therefore, centre them out for potential teasing (Mullenmaster, 1999).

Strategies for the Child Who Stutters

Preventative Measures

The speech-language pathologist may teach CWS strategies to cope with teasing. Without effective tools to deal with incidents of teasing, they may experience humiliation and frustration. The clinician should explain why other children tease and how to best react (or not react) to it (Ramig & Bennett, 1995). The goal of the speech-language pathologist when managing the issue of teasing is to empower the child who stutters through conflict resolution, peer counseling and assertiveness training. The clinician may use the "basketball analogy" (Ramig & Bennett, 1995) to explain the power struggle that is teasing. The "basketball analogy" is as follows:

When a teaser teases you he puts the basketball into your court. You are in control because you now hold the ball and can choose to do with the ball whatever you like. When you tease the teaser back you give the ball back to him and lose control. When you opt to employ a learned strategy from therapy you keep the ball and control and disable the teaser.

Reactive Measures

Choosing not to tease the bully back should be an attractive option to most children. What, then, is a child to do when faced with a bully? The speech-language pathologist can work with children to brainstorm ways that they can confidently and effectively react to the teasing (Starkweather & Givens-Ackerman, 1997). Strategies may be generally grouped into five classifications:

Avoid -- the child learns to alter his own behaviour in order to avoid the teaser at all costs. Although a child may prefer this option at first, its perceived effectiveness rapidly declines as the child realizes the sacrifices he must make to employ this strategy. For example, Rosemond (1994) tells of a child who took a different route home from school each day and remained close to his teachers when in the schoolyard. Unfortunately, the teaser did not lose interest in the child and eventually his parents decided it would be best to transfer the child to a new school.

Ignore -- the child learns to ignore the bully when teasing occurs. It is believed that if the child does not react, the bully will lose interest and discontinue the teasing (Langevin, 1998). This strategy is faulted by the fact that the child is passive and has no recourse throughout the teasing. S/he may also have to endure an increased amount and severity of teasing before it stops.

Inform -- the child learns to inform an adult whenever teasing takes place (Starkweather & Givens-Ackerman, 1997). This is effective for children who have teachers and parents who manage teasing well. Unfortunately, teachers and parents often are not aware of the extent to which teasing occurs, or of the consequences. Thus, teasing is often not dealt with effectively. It is worth note, however, that Mooney and Smith (1995) found that parents are quite willing to address the issue of their children's teasing when they are informed about it. Teachers were found to be less likely to deal with teasing even when informed.

Confront -- the child learns to confront and inform the teaser. A typical reaction that utilizes this strategy is "Yes, I stutter. It is a problem that is not my fault. Would you like to learn more about why I stutter or what you can do to help me?" This strategy, if employed in a confident manner, can empower children who stutter and allow them to diffuse the teaser and demystify the subject of stuttering (Lew, 1998). This may be a difficult strategy for children to master, as it requires them to be secure and confident – skills that children who stutter and are teased do not have in excess.

Witticism -- the child learns to make light of his own stuttering problem in front of the bully. A reaction to a bully's imitating a stutter might be "Oh, do you stutter, too?" or "You don't stutter the same way I do. Try it like this." This strategy is also a difficult one for children to employ because only select people possess such quick thinking skills, not to mention confidence (A. Khanna, personal communication, May 11, 1999). This is also a difficult strategy for the speech pathologist to coach. The child may not view his own stuttering problem with such levity, and may not wish others to either. The likelihood of this strategy backfiring on a child is very high as the child may stutter when attempting the retort, destroying the timing and wit of the remark and further empowering the teaser. Surprisingly, this is a reaction strategy recommended by many sources (Langevin, 1998; Lew, 1998; Starkweather & Givens-Ackerman, 1997; Manning, 1996).

Banks (1997) tells us that children who are teased are generally anxious, insecure, cautious, depressed, and have low self esteem. Children who are teased are often socially isolated, as their peers do not wish to be "teased by association" and therefore have few friends and social skills. Banks also reports that CWS rarely defend themselves. Children possessing any such characteristics may have difficulty employing the strategies discussed above and will require time and support from their clinicians, teachers, parents, and peers to do so.

Friends and Siblings

Friends and siblings can be the people closest to a child. For this reason, they may feel they can take liberties with a CWS that they intend to be a joke. The child, however, may interpret these jokes as particularly hurtful considering they come from people so close to him/her. Siblings, in particular, will often tease each other just out of the nature of their (competitive) relationships. When one sibling stutters, this can provide the non-stuttering sibling with a great deal of "material" about which to tease the stutterer. It is very important for the parents to explain to the non-stuttering sibling that stuttering is a legitimate problem, and not just another reason to tease the sibling. In order to legitimize the speech disorder to the non-stuttering sibling, parents should introduce her/him to other people who stutter (Lew, 1998). Having the non-stuttering sibling meet real people who stutter will help to demonstrate just how many people actually do stutter. Attending a self-help group is one effective way of meeting people who stutter. Educational videos about stuttering can also be helpful to the non-stuttering sibling.

Rather than teasing the sibling or friend who stutters, children who are closest to CWS should be part of the support system that the CWS can lean on. This does not mean that the friends and siblings should pretend that the stuttering is not happening. On the contrary, they should be open and honest about the stuttering, without dwelling on the issue. By keeping the stuttering out in the open, the child who stutters will feel more comfortable making mistakes, hopefully reducing her/his apprehension about the subject (Williams, 1995). Like others, it is particularly important that friends and siblings of PWS remember to allow the stutterer extra time to speak, not to interrupt, and not to finish their sentences (Williams, 1995).

Teachers and the School Setting

Teasing can occur just about anywhere, by just about anyone. The school setting, however, is a particularly likely environment for teasing to occur. The reason for this is that CWS spend most of their waking hours at school, and are expected to do a lot of speaking in front of large groups. While it is assumed that schoolmates are doing the biggest part of the teasing, other individuals, such as teachers, should not be ruled out of this equation (Mooney & Smith, 1995). It has been shown that teachers can be just as guilty of insensitivity towards children who stutter as can other students (Carlisle, 1985). Bullying by teachers and other adults may not be as overt as calling the child rude names. However, more covert actions can take place, such as making the CWS into the class scapegoat or asking them to do things beyond their capabilities or that they do not feel comfortable doing. In general, though, teachers should be part of the child's support network. In fact, they are the ones in the school setting who deal with the children involved in any teasing incidents (Lew, 1998). In order to do this responsibly teachers should be educated about stuttering so that they know what the stuttering child's capabilities and limitations are, as well as what constitutes teasing for any individual child. This will not only help them recognise what they should and should not have the child do, but it also allows the teachers to identify better with the child so that they can recognise when other children are teasing the stutterer (Lew, 1998). Reports have shown that teachers rarely talk about teasing or bullying to their classes (Banks, 1997; Langevin et al., 1998; Mooney & Smith, 1995), and they are often unaware of the teasing that goes on (Banks, 1997). Nevertheless, it should be the responsibility of teachers to look out for any teasing that might occur, and to teach the class lessons on respect for others (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997). Teachers should not have to wait for a child with a visible difference to enter their classrooms before this lesson is taught – nor should a lesson like this single out the children who are different. A general lesson on respect spares CWS from attracting any unnecessary attention. (Still, children who stutter should, at some point, feel comfortable enough to discuss their own stuttering at least with those closest to them.) If a class can understand more about stuttering, they will be less likely to tease CWS (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997).

Children who are in kindergarten are capable of understanding that some people speak or act or look different from others, and that it is wrong to be teased (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997). If Johnny stutters, for example, young children are capable of understanding that Johnny's speech might sound a little bit "sticky," or "bumpy," but a "speech teacher" is helping him with it, and even if it does sound different, Johnny is still just like everyone else in the class. Older children, for example grade three and up, can understand more complex explanations about stuttering, therapy techniques, and teasing (Starkweather & Givens-Ackermann, 1997). The teacher, though, may want to defer this lesson to another person, for instance, a speech-language pathologist or someone who does now or once stuttered (Manning, 1996; Lew, 1998). In general, when educating a class about stuttering and/or teasing, the entire school community should be involved, and not just the people involved with previous incidents (Banks, 1997).

Bill Murphy at Purdue University outlines certain details that should be included in a talk given to a class about stuttering and teasing (Murphy, 1998). First, children should become familiar with various types of speech and language disorders. This shows them that stuttering is in fact a serious disorder that requires clinical treatment. Examples of clinical tools should be demonstrated as well. Children often enjoy becoming disfluent themselves by experimenting with a Delayed Auditory Feedback machine. Some information about what stuttering is and how it is caused should be included as well. Once again, the complexity of this information will depend on the age of the children in the class. Listing famous people who stutter is a good way to validate the disorder to the children. Also, the students should be reminded that stuttering is nobody's fault, and that there are different ways a person can stutter. Finally, it should be stressed that teasing stutterers – or anybody – is wrong. This aspect of the lesson would be most effective if children in the class are willing to share stories about how they have been teased in the past. This illustrates to everyone that teasing affects everyone, and that nobody enjoys it.

Bullies, while they may be as varied and as complex as the people they prey on, are often insecure and crave discipline. This is why they tease other children (Banks, 1997). Teachers should, therefore, provide the discipline that apparently is lacking in their lives! As well, the bullies should be taught alternative methods of interaction with their classmates.

Banks, R. (1997). "Bullying in Schools". [On-line article]. Available: http://ericeece.org/pubs/digests/1997/banks97.html A webpage detailing the characteristics of bullies and victims as well as possible intervention programs. Provides a short list of references of other bullying resources.

Carlisle, J.A. (1985). Tangled Tongue: Living With a Stutter. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. An autobiography about life as a stutterer, this book addresses both factual information about stuttering as well as the author's personal experiences.

Langevin, M. (1999, May). "Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behavior (TAB) Helping children handle teasing and bullying". Symposium conducted at the 1999 CASLPA Conference, Edmonton, Alberta. This seminar supplement looks at the frequency and nature of bullying, as it pertains to children who stutter. This is an update of an ongoing research project about preparing for and dealing with teasing.

Langevin, M. (1998). "Teasing & Bullying: Unacceptable Behavior. Helping Children Handle Teasing and Bullying" (ISTAR research monograph). Edmonton, Alberta: Institute for Stuttering Treatment & Research (ISTAR) and Communication Improvement Program, affiliated with the University of Alberta. This is an outline of the author's research project. It offers statistics on teasing and bullying, as well as strategies for dealing with bullies.

Langevin, M., Bortnick, K., Hammer, T., & Wiebe, E. (1998). "Teasing/bullying experienced by children who stutter: Toward development of a questionnaire. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 25, 12-24. This pilot study collected data on the frequency, impact, and nature of teasing experienced by children who stutter. The purpose of the study was to test the Teasing/Bullying Questionnaire for Children who Stutter (TBQ-CS).

Lew, G.W. (1998) "Stuttering and teasing" [on-line article]. Available: http://www.parentpals.com/5.0newsletter/5.5speechnews/5.5.1stuttease.html This on-line article explores children who are being teased because of their stuttering and the kids who tease them. Strategies for dealing with bullies are offered for parents and children alike. Different types of strategies are offered according to different individuals' preferences.

Manning, W.H. (1996). Clincial Decision Making in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Fluency Disorders. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar Publishing This book offers information regarding the use of role play and humour in response to teasing.

Mooney, S. & Smith, P.K. (1995). "Bullying and the child who stammers". British Journal of Special Education, 22, 24-27. A British study that looked into the prevalence and types of bullying experienced by schoolchildren who stutter.

Mullenmaster, S. "Do's and Don'ts When Speaking With Someone Who Stutters". [On-line article] Available: http://www.d.umn.edu/~trandol1/sara.htm. This webpage lists general dos and don'ts for parents, teachers and the layperson for speaking with a person who stutters. It also lists recommendations specific for teachers' use in the classroom. The goal of the text is to teach the reader how to provide a nurturing environment for children who are disfluent.

Murphy, B. (1998). "Class visits for children who stutter" [on-line article]. Available: http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/kuster/therapypics/murphy.html An excellent step-by-step "manual" for speech-language pathologists who are going to address a class about stuttering and what to do when a classmate stutters.

Ramig, P.R. & Bennett, E.M. (1995). "Working with 7 to 12 year old children who stutter: Ideas for Intervention in the public schools". Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 26, p143 This article provides intervention ideas for teachers working with children who stutter in their classrooms. The article offers a short outline of how to manage teasing of a stuttering child in the classroom.

Rustin, L. Botterill, W., & Kelman, E. (1996) Assessment and therapy for young dysfluent children. London: Whurr. This clinically based textbook outlines everything from the onset and development of stuttering to the assessment, treatment, and psychosocial dynamics concerning children who stutter.

Rosemond, J. (1994). "Beating the Bully". Better Homes and Gardens. [On-line magazine article]. Available http://bhglive.teamnet.net/features/parentguide/rose93-96/rosm94-09b.html A magazine article aimed at helping parents manage bullying behaviour. The article is aimed at empowering the parents of the child who is bullied as well as at getting the parents of the bully to acknowledge the problem.

Starkweather, C.W. & Givens-Ackerman, J. (1997). Stuttering: Studies in Communicative Disorders. Pro-Ed: Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed. An extremely thorough guide to stuttering co-authored by one of the field's leading experts.

Williams, D. (1995). Stuttering and Your Child: Questions and Answers. Iowa: Stuttering Foundation of America, Publication 22. This guide for parents offers suggestions on how to prevent siblings and friends from teasing the child who stutters. It also provides recommendations of how to manage a child after he has been teased.

This paper was submitted for SLP 1529H Fluency Disorders taught by Dr. Luc De Nil, Department of Speech-Language Pathology University of Toronto, May 28, 1999, and was added with permission June 1, 1999.