Creating Safe Schools for Young People Who Stutter

Blog by Voon Pang
Aug. 30, 2017

If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow. - Alfie Kohn (Author)

School's back and I hope you had a nice break over the summer! Today's blog post is for the parent of the school aged child who stutters and his/her classroom teacher.

Are you a parent of a child who is moving schools this year? Or are you a teacher who has a student who stutters in your class and you’ve never taught a student who stutters? The school environment can be challenging for anyone who is different, let alone a young person who stutters. Over the last couple of months, I have met with two young individuals who have had vastly different experiences in the school environment. Safe schools protect young people who stutter from anxiety, fear and the potential threat of ridicule from fluent speakers or by-standers.

One of the individuals I met with was provided a special accommodation of doing his oral presentation in front of a video camera instead of the whole class. Along with speech therapy, this type of accommodation can be a stepping stone to help improve a student’s ability to speak in front of the class. Future accommodations for this student could involve doing the oral presentation in front of the teacher and a few friends in his class. Students who stutter need gentle, encouragement and support to take risks in order to grow to become confident communicators.

The second individual I met with had a negative experience and his parents and I have needed to empower the school to prevent the same thing from happening again to fellow students who stutter. The young person I’ve been working with had to go to a different classroom to return a jumper to a fellow student. In the midst of explaining to the teacher why he was returning the jumper, my student stuttered significantly, which prompted half of the class to laugh at him. Unfortunately, the teacher did not do anything to support my student, which led to him running out of the classroom extremely upset. Since the event, this individual's school has made changes and ensured that all staff are aware that he is a person who stutters and that it is up to the adults to protect students who stutter from ridicule.

These two stories are important lessons in how teachers can help students who stutter in the school environment.

Teachers and administrative staff can:

 1.     Learn about stuttering. The more information you know about stuttering the more you can support your student in the classroom. The Stuttering Foundation of America and the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children have useful videos specifically for teachers so that you can learn about stuttering. The more knowledge you have about stuttering, the better you will be at advocating for your student.

2.     Ensure the classroom is a safe environment. Feeling safe and making sure that young people who stutter are able to speak without the risk of ridicule is one of the most important contributions you can make it advocating for your student. If young people who stutter feel that their teacher and peers accept them, then they will be well on their way of saying what they want to say when they want to say it without ever letting stuttering get in the way.

3.     Meet with the young people who stutter. Much like every student in your classroom is different, every people who stutter is different. Set aside some time to meet with your student who stutters when other students aren’t around. Some students like to meet with their teacher on their own whilst others prefer their parents to be present. Ask questions such as “When you’re finding it hard to speak, is there anything I can do, or should I just listen and let you finish?” Look at resources from the Stuttering Foundation of America, Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, National Stuttering Association and the British Stammering Association which outline some useful questions to ask students who stutter.

4.     Do not penalise stuttered speech. This point is particularly important when students are asked to present oral reports or do classroom speeches. I relate penalising a student who stutters for fluent delivery of an oral report to asking a person who has trouble walking to compete against a 100m sprinter. It is just not fair to penalise a student because they stuttered. Students who stutter are wired to sometimes stutter and the pressure of talking in front of a large group is likely to increase the chances of stuttering. For speaking tasks which are time limited, discuss and negotiate with your student if more time is required.

5.     Educate the classroom about differences. Spend time talking about differences. You can do this by preparing a special lesson which focusses on diversity. The more the classroom is aware that differences can be celebrated and accepted the more comfortable a young person who stutter can be. Stuttering is a difference and when that difference is discussed in a matter-of-fact way, students are more likely to be supportive of the young person who stutters.

Start off the year by being well-informed and helping students who stutter flourish at school. We can all make a difference and create safe schools so that young people who stutter have the freedom to communicate without fear.

Have a good start to the year everyone and the next time I blog, I will be blogging about some of my learnings from the 11th Oxford Dysfluency Conference in the U.K!

Check out resources for teachers and parents.