Teachers of stammering children

What is stammering?

 

Children can be very good at hiding their stammer in the classroom. Here are some ideas about what to look out for...

What is stammering?

Stammering is universal. It is found in all parts of the world, across all cultures, religions and socio-economic groups. It may be referred to as stammering, stuttering or dysfluency - the terms mean the same. Stammering can take many different forms and each person who has a stammer shows slightly different features.

Stammering has been recorded throughout history. There have been countless theories which try to explain its development and existence. In the past, it has been described variously as an anatomical disorder, a disease, a psychiatric illness, an anomaly of brain functioning and an emotional disturbance! These ancient theories resulted in all manner of attempts to rectify the problem - none was successful.

We do know that:
• It usually starts in childhood between 2-5 years of age (often after the child has already started to speak)
• It may start gradually or quite suddenly
• While initially it affects boys and girls equally, later on there are about 4 or 5 times as many boys who stammer as girls
• About 5% of children may go through a phase when they seem to stammer but as it only affects about 1% of adults, many children recover naturally or with some help
• Parents don't cause stammering
• Stammering can run in families
• It is often unpredictable, variable and episodic

Characteristics of stammering

Although the quantity and type of the stammering differs for each individual, the following features are more usual:
• Repetition of whole words, e.g. "and, and, and, then I left"
• Repetition of single sounds, e.g. "c-c-come h-h-here"
• Prolonging of sounds, e.g. "sssssssometimes I go out"
• Blocking of sounds, where the mouth is in position but no sound comes out
• Facial tension - in the muscles around the eyes, nose, lips or neck
• Extra body movements may occur as the child attempts to 'push' the word out, e.g. stamping the feet, shifting body position or tapping with the fingers
• The breathing pattern may be disrupted, for example the child may hold his breath while speaking or take an exaggerated breath before speaking
• Generally the flow of speech is interrupted and this may cause distress to the speaker and the listener

Sometimes the child adopts strategies to try to minimise or hide the problem, for example:
• Avoiding or changing words - the child may say "I've forgotten what I was going to say', or may switch to another word when he begins to stammer, e.g. "I played with my br- br- br... my sister on Saturday"
• Avoiding certain situations - for instance, speaking in assembly or asking questions in class

Some children become so adept at hiding their problem in this manner that they may appear fluent, or just become very quiet.

What causes stammering?

Most authorities would now say that a child's vulnerability is the result of a combination of factors, both innate and environmental.

Innate

• The pre-disposition to stammer is probably inherited
• It may be related to a child's developing speech and language skills. Perhaps there are some mismatches in his abilities in one area compared with another, or there may be some (as yet unknown) differences in the way that the child's brain co-ordinates the speech output system
• The child's own personality may affect the way that he or she deals with moments of dysfluency - some children are more sensitive, some worry more about making mistakes, some are impatient and want to rush everything at the speed of light and others couldn't care less

Environmental

Naturally children are aware of and respond to their environment - their home, family, nursery, friends, relatives, school, etc.

• Most children cope with busy lifestyles but some find the fast pace of daily life, the need to adapt quickly and to make their presence felt (verbally and non-verbally), more difficult than others
• The child who is going through a period of stammering, or who is vulnerable to the problem, will find it harder to be fluent when trying to speak quickly, to participate in rapid conversations, to match others' rates of talking or to use complicated and lengthy sentences
• The way that others respond to a child's speech dysfluencies can also make a difference

The child's social environment doesn't cause stammering, but the child's fluency can be affected by what is happening around them - positively and negatively.