Teaching Young Children who Stutter
Stuttering is a communication disorder associated with speech disfluencies, or disruptions in the forward flow of speech. Disfluencies can include repetitions of words or parts of words, prolongations of sounds, or complete blockages of sounds. The degree of stuttering varies depending on several factors. These include to whom the child is speaking, where and when she is speaking, her physical and emotional state, and the length and complexity of the topic about which she is speaking.
As a young child begins to speak, sometimes it is difficult to tell whether or not she has a speech disorder. Most children experience periods of disfluency as they are learning to speak. Some signs to distinguish early childhood stuttering, or worsening stuttering, from typical speech development include:
- Repeating sounds more than twice, li-li-li-li-like this;
- Rising pitch of the voice with repetitions, occasional lack of airflow or voice;
- Noticeable tension and struggle during disfluencies;
- Increased prolongations of sounds rather than repetitions;
- Obvious fear and frustration before and during disfluencies;
- Changing words or using extra sounds to avoid stuttering, and;
- Avoidance of speaking in certain situations or to certain people.
How to Help Children who Stutter
Targeted intervention is key in helping to reduce or eliminate early childhood stuttering. Children should be evaluated by a certified speech-language pathologist to determine if she indeed stutters. The goal of early speech therapy is to change the timing and the tension of the production of speech. While speech-language pathologists work with a child in therapy, teachers can help in the following ways.
- Model good speech by speaking to the child using a slower rate. Disfluency increases when people speak more quickly, so slow, relaxed speech will slow the student's speech down. Pause frequently.
- Reduce demands on the child. Try to avoid making positive comments when she speaks fluently. Although these comments may seem supportive, she may interpret them the wrong way and not understand what she did differently to make her speech fluent.
- Reduce questions requiring long or complex answers. When she is particularly disfluent, ask closed-ended questions (Did you have a good day?) instead of open-ended questions (What did you do today?). Save questions requiring longer answers for when she is speaking more fluently.
- Model how to have a proper conversation. Make sure all the students in the class model appropriate conversational skills, including taking turns, not interrupting, and giving each person enough time to talk.
- Give the child undivided attention for a few minutes at a regular time each day. Allow her to choose activities and let her decide whether to talk or not. When talking during this time, use slow, calm, relaxed speech, and pause frequently. This quiet, calm time can build confidence in younger children.
Finally, convey to the child that she is accepted just as she is, whether she stutters or not. Her self-acceptance and self-confidence depend highly on others. Do not convey that stuttering is bad, because she may begin to believe that she is bad. If she begins to believe this, her shame will increase and this negative attitude will affect her speech. Speech therapy will only work if she maintains a positive attitude about herself and her speech.