When you teach a student who has a stutter, you are likely balancing two challenges: managing special considerations, and often an IEP, for a student who has a complex disorder that is not fully understood, and cultivating a classroom that is understanding and supportive.
As is the case with any other disorder or disability (and yes, stuttering, can be categorized as a disability, just like blindness or deafness), adjustments have to be made in the classroom—but not to the point, as is the case with many other disabilities, where the child is excused from normal classroom expectations.
First, the facts: Approximately 1 percent of the population stutters, which means that 3 million Americans and 70 million people worldwide stutter. More girls than boys outgrow stuttering, meaning that over time, for every three or four boys who stutter, only one girl does.
And the causes? Let’s start by tackling the myths and what stuttering is not. It is not a symptom of anxiety or a psychological problem, although it can result in anxiety or psychological problems. It is not a breathing problem, although breathing exercises can help people with the disorder to manage it. It is also not a reflection of low intelligence or an indicator of future success: Accomplished individuals known to have stuttered include not just Joe Biden but Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, and Bill Withers; actors Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sam Neill; singer/songwriters including Carly Simon and Ed Sheeran; Shaquille O’Neal; and Jack Welch, the former longtime CEO of GE.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), stuttering is a type of disfluency that is best understood as a neurophysiological disorder. It can be a relatively ephemeral child development issue; the Stuttering Foundation reports that three-quarters of children who stutter overcome it by late childhood, without treatment. Its causes are not well understood. On a general level, stuttering could be caused by abnormalities in speech motor control, and one theory suggests that when an individual stutters, it could be rooted in an overactive right brain hemisphere that prevents the natural flow of speech-related physical movements. Stuttering also likely has a genetic component: The ASHA reports that 60 percent of those who stutter have a close family member who also stutters.
Getting to ‘Unconditional Listening’
When you have a student in the classroom who stutters, it’s crucial to know what to do (and what not to do) to support their success and create a classroom culture that is understanding, kind, and patient.
Tim Mackesey, a speech language pathologist who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of speech disorders (and himself a severe stutterer for over 20 years), shares these strategies, several of which are counterintuitive to people who are not familiar with stuttering:
- Balance sensitivity with normal expectations. A child with a stutter has special needs, just like one who is visually or hearing impaired, but that doesn’t mean that they should not participate in class or should be excused from speaking. A child with a stutter who is not properly supported can develop avoidance behaviors, while one who is supported has incentive to continually improve.
- Do make special considerations when students take and are graded on an oral reading test such as a DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) test that demands speed. Tests like DIBELS should not be forced on a student who stutters.
- When calling on students who stutter, consider phrasing questions to solicit yes/no answers or short phrases. That sets the child up for success, both in terms of knowledge and fluency, until they are ready to progress to more complex answers. Call on the student with a stutter when their hand is raised. That’s an indicator that they are comfortable, ready, and confident—all ingredients for success.
- Be aware that, while the student is speaking, your own facial expressions and nonverbal feedback are crucial. Make sure your face and body reflect unconditional listening.
- While you might be tempted to say “slow down,” “breathe,” or “start over,” don’t do that, and don’t finish the child’s sentences or words. That sort of coaching can be counterproductive, sending the message that you do not approve of the child and triggering their self-consciousness, particularly if that sort of correction occurs in front of classmates.
- Be aware of the natural, unconscious tendency to signal a need for speed in spoken activities. For example, you might move briskly as you take attendance, or have students take turns speaking rapidly in an exercise—and that can challenge a student with a stutter unnecessarily.
- Bullying or teasing from other students is obviously unacceptable. Don’t punish the perpetrators but rather consider having the bully and the victim sit down after class. Encourage apologies and forgiveness.
- Consider educating the class about stuttering, so the student’s classmates know, just as you do, that stuttering is a difference, not a reflection of an individual’s intelligence or capabilities. Some children who stutter are willing to educate the class about what it is like to live with the condition. The speech pathologist, teacher, and/or parent can participate. If the child who stutters is not comfortable addressing the class but wants their peers educated, the teacher can facilitate the conversation.
- Solicit feedback from the student, their parents, and their speech pathologist, before assigning the child a challenging activity, such as a speaking role in a play or a presentation.
- With respect to potentially stressful speaking situations, it is often helpful to ask the child to rate their comfort on a 1 to10 scale. For example, you might ask, “We are doing show-and-tell next week. On a 1 to 10 scale—10 is really comfortable—how do you feel about doing show-and-tell?” If the child expresses anxiety or fear, you have an opportunity to support the child’s inclusion in the activity. Allowing that child to go first is an example of an accommodation.
- Prepare any substitute teachers for the child’s special needs.
- If you are in a distance learning environment, note that some expectations and exercises are going to be particularly challenging for students who stutter. Consider, for example, if a student who has a stutter is required to record and upload content, that can backfire spectacularly, to the point of humiliation for the student.