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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 S1, 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 possible physical tension and real fear of speaking. Pupils are therefore more likely to try to avoid speaking situations and/or to try tactics when speaking to disguise the stammer.

They may also 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

  • An incorrect answer may be knowingly offered, rather than risk stammering. 
  • Looking away, as does a pupil in a 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. 
  • The pupil may use 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 round 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. 
  • The negative feelings that are often present have been described as the 'Iceberg' because they are under the surface and the pupil may not be aware of them, or even if aware may still try to hide them with other distracting behaviours. 

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 the cognitive ability of the pupil.
  • Where 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 may cope by saying very little, and are consequently often left out of class discussions or social situations with the other pupils.
  • Where 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.
  • Monitor for underachievement
  • Children who stammer have the same range of abilities and personality traits as children who do not. It is easy to underestimate the ability of a child who stammers as he may not always be able to express his thoughts and ideas. Teachers should TRACK achievement in relationship to the potential of the child, using whatever cognitive tests are favoured in their school.

Remember that just because a child does not appear able to talk, it does not mean that he does not understand.

Teasing and Bullying

Children who stammer do worry about this and parents are understandably concerned. All schools follow policies to prevent this and parents and children are encouraged to report any concerns as soon as possible.

Every child needs to feel able to safely approach the teacher with a problem. However, children who stammer may have problems talking to their teacher about such an emotional issue and could be helped by strategies which allow them to give information in writing, to be placed in a 'bully box' or similar. See Bullying in this resource. 

The key to preventing bullying is effective personal and social education that emphasises the diversity of the human family, and activities in PSD/PSE, Chatterbox Time, or a specific pupil self-help group for instance, can be ideal.

In some schools, pupils who feel different in some way are encouraged to give a short talk to the class to create some empathy with their feelings.

If a child who stammers has the confidence to do this with support that can be helpful. It is advisable for the teacher to consult with the parent and therapist before considering an approach to the child. 

Talking to the Pupil 

The guidance teacher, 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 guidance teacher about any problems arising.