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Secondary pupils who stammer

Common behaviours

By the secondary stage, boys who stammer will outnumber girls by as many as 5 to 1. Therefore the pronoun 'he' is used for convenience throughout the text.

By Year 7, the pupil may have been stammering for many years, and hopefully at primary school was given the support that encouraged him to feel confident about his speech, and participate successfully in oral work.

Nonetheless, the growing personal awareness and sensitivity of adolescence may lead to increasing concern about his speech, especially in front of pupils in the different subject groups. Teasing and bullying is likely to be a real worry and add to this anxiety.

This self-awareness and concern about the reactions of others is very likely to generate a negative cycle of worrying feelings of embarrassment and anxiety, with physical tension and real fear of speaking.

Older pupils are therefore more likely to try to avoid speaking situations and/or to try tactics when speaking to disguise the stammer. They also may be so anxious to have their say, when they know that they can get the words out, that they do so without considering whether it is appropriate to speak at that point. This may appear as rudeness to the listener.

Typical avoidance behaviours in the older pupil

An incorrect answer may be knowingly offered, rather than risk stammering.

Looking away, as does Matthew in Year 9, in the video clip, or closing eyes helps the young person to avoid seeing reactions in the listener he may imagine but does not want to see, like embarrassment.

Strategies, such as coughing, blushing, dropping a book, giggling, pretending not to hear or even causing a distraction to get out of answering, are common.

The able pupil, with a good vocabulary, may resort to circumlocution, talking around the subject, so that meaning is hard to discern. Others may offer an inappropriate monosyllabic reply, rather than talk for any longer period.

Use of filler words and phrases like' y'know', 'right', 'kind of/sort of' etc. Shrugs or other facial or bodily gestures may be substituted for words, or used as if to 'push out' the words.

Words may be changed around, or a word that seems easier to say substituted for a difficult word, even if the meaning is changed.

Anxiety may lead the student to try to avoid speaking completely. It is very difficult for the busy subject tutor, especially if the pupil is only seen in one lesson over a short period, to work out what is really going on.

The teacher also has to discern whether these behaviours are connected with stammering, or whether they have other causes that would require a different approach.

Common feelings

These are anger, embarrassment, frustration guilt, lack of confidence, shame.

It is important to 'look behind' the behaviour to see if a stammer may be present.

Although the teacher may see a pupil who appears to be coping with schoolwork, and whose talking does not seem to cause concern, closer monitoring should take place where:

  • There is a clear discrepancy between the standard of the oral and written work and cognitive ability of the pupil.
  • There is a pattern of avoiding speaking, or of being particularly quiet and withdrawn. This is most frequently found in teenage girls who stammer, as they cope by saying very little, and are consequently often left out of class discussions or social situations with the other pupils.
  • There are regular incidents of silly or challenging behaviour, particularly if it seems out of character with previous patterns. This is more common in boys and may be difficult to separate from typical adolescent boisterousness.

Talking to the Pupil

The form tutor, or an appropriate colleague, should discuss these behavioural concerns with the pupil to ensure that achievement is commensurate with ability.

If a stammer is suspected, advice from a Speech and Language Therapist on how best to raise the issue would be helpful, as adolescents in particular may be reluctant to discuss it.

The aim is to establish strategies for open and supportive discussion on a regular basis between the pupil and his tutor about any problems arising.