About the presenter: Cherry Hughes works for the British Stammering Association as the Schools' Liaison Officer. She had nearly thirty years of experience in education, in colleges and schools, most latterly at the senior levels. She used to stammer very badly as a child and young person, and eventually taught herself how to overcome it when she was at the university, at the age of 22.

Some suggestions for teachers of children who stammer

by Cherry Hughes
United Kingdom

There are some very painful memories of school experiences recalled and much of that distress might have been prevented if the stammering child had been given speech and language therapy from an early age, and if the teachers had been in a position to play a part in the network of support.

In primary schools where young children have been picked up at an early age and are receiving therapy, as long as the parents agree, the Speech and Language Therapist is sometimes able to visit the school and discuss strategies of support for the teacher. This model of collaboration is the ideal to which we would give our wholehearted support . Progress in these circumstances can be very encouraging.

If the condition has not been identified until the secondary school stage , therapy may be useful and should always be tried but the expectations of success are lower because speech patterns are established and a fear of talking may have been added to the problem, causing emotional difficulties for the child. The helpful collaboration between schools and therapists described above is not always easy to achieve here either as it frequently has resource implications for both the health and education services, and the sheer logistics of arranging meetings between teacher and therapist, particularly in a secondary school with its larger staff and diversity of subject commitments, at a time of stretched resources can pose problems.

Quick Points for every one, from Headteacher to support staff and pupils.

Always give time to the pupil who is having difficulty with speech. This applies in the hidden as well as the formal curriculum. A lot of oral language contacts take place informally in passing conversations. For example, the dinner queue, a common cause of stress for the stammerer will just have to wait for the pupil, after all life requires a lot of queuing and children have to learn about turn taking and waiting. In many ordinary situations, gestures are used to point to items and that is perfectly acceptable, as long it does not become a substitute for the uncomfortable experience of speech.

The tendency may be, particularly at the end of a trying day, for the teacher or other adult to feel irritated by the speech of the stammering child and for that emotion to show in the expression, or in body language. As the child stammers and stumbles over the words, your attitude might make all the difference to the effect which the stammer has on the pupil's whole life. Try to maintain eye contact, and an interested expression and concentrate on what is being said. Do not give an impression of irritability or impatience. These feelings do need to be confronted if, as a teacher you are aware of them in these situations, they are understandable but should be overcome.

If you know that the child has a bad stammer, it is best to avoid any conversation when you have an immediately pressing appointment, break duty or something similar, and indeed all pupils need to be made aware that they should not detain you at such times.

In conversation with the younger child particularly, it might be particularly tempting to finish off words, this is never good practice with any school child who stammers and unless the older pupil or adult stammerer requests that you do that, it is always best to allow the person to finish what they are trying to say, because speech makes such a personal statement about a person that to cut off the flow because of a stutter may be felt to be very demeaning by the stammerer.

As the pupils grow older, it is particularly humiliating to have so little value given to their words and, with the growing sensitivities of adolescence, a cycle of frustration, fear of stammering and inability to express feelings and emotions can be seriously damaging to the personality and the chances of a fulfilling personal and vocational life.

After a period of stammering speech it may be helpful to rephrase what has been said and draw the attention of the class or the group outside the classroom, perhaps at break or wherever, to the comment by repeating its content so that the emphasis is on what has been said rather than the stammer. Then go back to the stammerer in your conversation for a short follow on comment .Gating the conversation at the end of a stammering comment is not good practice, as it smacks a little bit of being grateful that the experience of listening is over and done with.

A forced alternative question can be especially helpful - so do you think that is -----? gives credence to the child's remarks, whether they are said in the classroom context or in informal conversation. It makes a statement to the group and the child with the speech problem that his ideas are worthy of exploration and yet does not require another lengthy bout of talking. The intonation used by the teacher in all these circumstances should be helpful so that interest is obvious..

Even if the pupil needs to make an urgent request it is best to allow him to say it completely before replying. I am thinking of the-"Can I go to the Toilet?" sort of requests , which the school will have some standard of practice in dealing with anyway, as children are prevented from being out of lessons unnecessarily. Even very young children are better completing their request, even if there is a risk of a puddle on the floor. It is not good for a child to begin to see speech as something which can be avoided, we are trying to encourage pupils to use this vital tool of communication, however imperfectly at first. However, I am not sure whether this advice stands in all situations, there may after all be a serious emergency in the school which the stammering pupil has discovered, in these circumstances you must judge for yourself! In this context of an urgent need to communicate, there are schools which allow children with a major speech problem to carry with them a red card, to be shown to a teacher only when the pupil is under great stress and quite unable to speak in a situation where speaking is expected or needed. Having a card which explains the problem, allows the pupil to write down the words for the teacher. Such a procedure may be worth discussing in the individual school and, if it appears to be helpful, with the pupil and the Speech and Language Therapist. We would not as a rule favour such an approach, except in the direst of emergencies, but there may be circumstances where it can be reassuring for the pupil.

As often pupils are asked to go with a message to another teacher, and this is usually done in pairs, do include the child who stammers in such an errand, so that confidence will be built up, younger children could say the message together, older ones will work out their own strategies.

Wherever possible include the child who stammers in all the oral activities of the school, so that it is signalled to all members of the school community that all pupils are valued and accepted for their individual contribution to the life of the school. Such a strategy makes an important point to all pupils about the nature and forms of human individuality and difference.

The observation may have shown a considerable stammering problem generally, but it is important that the individual teacher decides just how much of a problem in this individual class the pupil is having. Stammering is variable, and the interaction of factors may make one class more difficult than another for the pupil. Periods of dysfluency in stammerers of any age do vary and this makes the condition particularly difficult to provide specific approaches which work in all situations. Consequently, if the pupil appears to be quite comfortable with their speech, even though stammering considerably then all you need to do, (not always easy) is to maintain that situation and ensure that you follow some of the simple strategies discussed here.

Be a role model for behaviour generally, and speech in particular.

Iknow that one way to influence another person is to mirror their behaviour, and as pupils generally want to keep the right side of their teacher most of them will react to the teacher's own model of presentation. I know that it is easier said than done to present this model of calm, controlled and reassuring behaviour all the time, and I recall many times myself falling below this high standard with some of our very difficult pupils. But to do that did not assist me in managing the class, it never works to lose control and to raise the emotional temperature unless it is part of an ordered strategy for classroom management.

With any kind of challenging behaviour, even of a passive nature such as the tendency by a stammerer to elect to be mute, it is easier to prevent than to cure.

General Strategies for speaking in typical classroom situations for all teachers


While the aim is always to cure the stammer and early intervention gives the best chance of that, it is difficult to overcome completely and may continue throughout life. The teacher's most helpful role might turn out to be helping the pupil to overcome the fear of stammering which probably does more psychological harm than does the stammering itself. I just want to stress the importance again of a whole school approach which gives all colleagues the information needed for the support of the stammering child. I would like you to consider what steps you are able to take to put speech on the agenda in your school. How will you cascade the information that you have received today in some quick and practical way. Often the busy teacher does not have time to pass on what has been learned. Have you a method for doing this in your school? Reflect on your own practice, ideally with colleagues and consider strategies which you can implement. Next time you are out and about try to imagine how it feels to stammer, particularly for young people and alert others to the problems a stammer may cause.

September 16, 1998