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Stammering is a hidden disability which affects 1% of adults and up to 9% of children.
With numbers like this, it’s very likely you will encounter a child who stammers in your class or school. I’m a teacher who stammers – here’s what behaviours to look for and advice for getting the best from pupils in your care who stammer.
There are a range of overt behaviours you might notice when a young person stammers. These include putting their hands over or around their mouth, repeating words or sounds and seeming tense and anxious.
Pupils who stammer may also speak in a funny voice, such as a baby voice, or speak more quietly or loudly than necessary. When they feel able to speak, they may interrupt or call out in class, which can seem rude.
Look out for pupils using filler words such as ‘like’, ‘and’, ‘y’know’ and ‘sort of’ to act as a run-in to speaking.
There are also a range of covert behaviours you might notice when a young person stammers. These include avoiding talking and trying to get out of situations where talking is expected.
Pupils may behave in ways that cover up their stammer. For example, they may seem quiet and hardworking, or they might be difficult in class and try to dominate other children.
Having a stammer may cause students to compromise on what they’d like to do or say. They may see situations as an exposure of their stammering and might judge opportunities solely in terms of it.
For example, they may avoid school trips or visits to friends’ houses. You may see pupils planning ahead in their talking, continually worrying about their choice of words, or talking so quietly that you can’t hear what they’re saying.
Children with stammers often worry about friendships and simple social demands such as buying sweets, paying bus fares or calling someone. They may feel generally worried about what is coming next.
Some of the behaviours I’ve set out above might be familiar to you, whereas some might not be. Regardless, here are some easy tips to help young people with stammers feel at ease in your class and access the most from education.
Firstly, it’s vital to allow children who stammer the time to finish, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for you. If there are behaviour issues to deal with in the class while a pupil is stammering, stop the speaker gently and say you will return in a moment.
Most children appreciate being given notice of oral tasks, so that planning can take place. This is particularly beneficial for children who stammer, as it gives them time to plan ahead.
Anxiety can be reduced by explaining to a pupil when an answer will need to be given or a passage read aloud. Some children who stammer prefer to go first to avoid the build-up of stress, while others may simply just want to know when it will be their turn.
Children who stammer have the same range of abilities and personality traits as children who don’t. It’s easy to underestimate the ability of a child who stammers, as they may not always be able to express their thoughts and ideas.
Track achievement in relationship to the potential of the child in question, using whatever cognitive tests are favoured in your school. Remember – just because a child doesn’t appear able to talk, it doesn’t mean they don’t understand.
Adam Black is a secondary teacher, based at an autism service unit within a mainstream school; follow him at @adam_black23.
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