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Party#1: Christine Gerard, M.S., CCC-SLP
As a graduate student, I loved the study of fluency and always hoped to work with a person who stuttered. Then I got a job in a school system and ended up with more than 10 students (in one IEP year) classified as having a fluency disorder. Before working as a speech therapist, I had worked with an elementary school coach who stuttered as a child and "cured" himself by learning to sing and play the guitar. He had never gone to speech therapy and had very strong feelings about therapists who don't stutter, but who work with individuals who do. I didn't agree with all of his beliefs, but I valued his experience. He believed in empowering the person who stuttered. He believed that my role as a speech therapist was to help the person who stuttered accept themselves, and to find a level of fluency that worked for them in a way that focused on them - rather than on the strategies I might have learned to use in graduate school. He also believed in his guitar. He was more than thrilled to come to speak to my kids around Christmas. I cleared it with the necessary people, invited Coach, and before I knew it I was sitting in a room with several students with very different levels of fluency, family support, social experiences, and feelings about themselves and their stuttering. I figured that, if all else failed, at least my students would get to sing Christmas carols (and I had made sure to provide pretzels and cookies to sweeten the deal).
Coach explained that he used to stutter, but that he had learned to sing. Then he started the caroling, my students started to respond, and my understanding of fluency and how deeply my kids "felt" their stuttering changed forever. Because I work with pre-k to first grade students, it is sometimes easy to forget how important it is to deal with the social and emotional aspects of stuttering. My kids like to color and go to recess, not talk about "stuttering stuff". I sometimes spoke to them directly about their moments of stuttering, but I never took the time to be in the moment and feel that with them. Coach encouraged the students to sing with him. From graduate school, I knew that rhythm and choral speaking and singing can facilitate fluency. I was shocked to find that some of my students were hesitant even to do that for fear that they might "get stuck" on words. One student in particular refused to even mouth the words for the majority of the fluency party. Then, during "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", he began to mouth the words. He looked shocked that he could even MOUTH words without stuttering. Then he began to whisper. He looked around in excitement and began to get louder and louder. By the end of the song, he was very nearly shouting the lyrics and was standing up.
Magically, after the fluency party, that student became much more willing to work with me in speech. . .and to interact with humans in general. His behavior problems in class sharply declined. Now he's a leader in some of my fluency groups. I'll forever be glad that I scheduled the fluency party. Without that party, I would never have understood or been able to literally watch a child who stutters reach the understanding that stuttering doesn't have to define him. I wouldn't have understood that my kindergarten kid needed to experience fluency in order to dare to work towards it. That experience changed me as a therapist and gave me the courage to continue planning "unconventional" therapy for my students, never sticking to a "stale" lesson plan...and I still keep pretzels and cookies in the room, just in case of emergencies.
Party #2: Katherine Hays, M.S., CCC-SLP
Inspired by Christine Gerard's idea, Jane Leblanc (see below) and I decided to host a "stuttering party" for a total of six students who stuttered at our elementary school. We invited an adult who stutters, and who is active in the National Stuttering Association, to come speak with our students. Four of the students were on my caseload; two were on Jane's. Over cookies and juice, our students got an opportunity to listen as our guest recounted his experiences as a person who stutters, and his struggles in the contexts of school, childhood, adulthood, and the workforce. He took the time to get to know the kids as they shared their personal interests, their own experiences with stuttering, and their strategies for coping with speech dysfluencies. He also gave the students an opportunity to ask their own questions.
During the "party," one second grade student exclaimed, "Whew! I thought I was the only one!" I had previously asked him about his feelings about his speech, and he had not once indicated to me that he was bothered by it. Although he exhibited a moderate level of speech dysfluency, he had not exhibited or indicated any secondary characteristics or social/emotional speech-related issues of which I was aware. Apparently, though, he had felt alone in his experience as a person who stutters, and felt great relief to spend time with other children who stutter, as well as an adult he could relate to in that respect. During his next speech therapy session (in a group with two second grade students with language disorders), he told them about his experience at the party and said, "I'm not the only one!" His teacher reported to me that he had recounted a similar sentiment of relief to her after the party. Another second grade student, who exhibited covert stuttering behaviors and had been very "shy" in his speech therapy sessions, expressed similar relief to me following the party, and said he was "really glad" he had gotten to meet our guest.
My third student, a first grader who exhibited a moderate level of speech dysfluency, had spoken with me during his individual sessions about anxiety and sadness associated with stuttering. His father also stuttered; the student told me that and his father both felt "sad" about stuttering. He did not talk often in class. After the party, his teacher reported to me that he had been excited to recount the experience to her. Additionally, he frequently and excitedly referred to our guest in later speech therapy sessions. My fourth student, a fourth grader, had only recently been identified as having a fluency disorder. He exhibited a moderate-to-severe level of speech dysfluency, and had a number of significant social and emotional issues related to his speech. He was very reserved during the party, but did tell me later that he enjoyed meeting our guest, and that he had not realized that some adults stutter.
The party was very educational for me. I truly enjoyed hearing our guest's perspective and learning about his experiences. I realized that although some children who stutter may not overtly indicate social or emotional concerns related to their speech, they nonetheless might very well have deeply internalized negative emotions that demand attention. Giving those kids an opportunity to socialize with an adult who stutters can provide a unique opportunity for them to bring these issues to the fore and deal with them out in the open.
Party #2: Jane Leblanc, M.S., CCC-SLP
For me, the most profound impact that the stuttering party had on my students was the fact that they realized that they are not alone in their dysfluency. I had two male students who were able to attend the party. The youngest, a kindergarten student, is a mild stutterer who is only mildly aware of his dyfluency and does not appear to be bothered by it. My older student, a then second grade student, is a quite severe stutterer who has not had a lot of intervention, and at the time was very reluctant to participate in the counseling portion of our sessions. He was at times completely adverse to the idea of therapy in general and I'm not at all sure that he had "bought into" the idea that therapy could help him to be more fluent. Both boys were very attentive as our speaker, an adult male who stutters, shared about his experiences with dysfluency. Both were able to answer questions and participate in conversation. It was only after our get-together that my resistant second grader became more engaged in our sessions and began to try to use some fluency shaping techniques.