Dear Dr. Shore,
I teach eighth-grade English and I have a boy in my class with a pronounced stutter. My heart goes out to him when he speaks in class. I want to help make him comfortable but I'm afraid that I'm going to do something that makes him more self-conscious. What do you suggest?
Your concern is well-placed. Children who stutter often are very self-conscious about their speech. Fearful of humiliating themselves, they shy away from talking in class. Its easier for them to keep quiet than risk embarrassment. They often go to great lengths to conceal their stuttering, but beneath their silence is a strong desire to talk like their peers.
Your role is to help your student feel more comfortable in class by lessening his fear of stuttering. The reason for that is the more children try not to stutter, the more theyre likely to stutter. Your students stuttering will decrease as his fear of stuttering decreases and he puts less effort into trying to prevent its occurrence. In short, your role is to promote free speech rather than fluent speech. Just as importantly, you serve as a role model for your other students about how to respond to the student who stutters.
The following strategies might help your student feel more comfortable in class:
Listen attentively and patiently. Children who stutter are very sensitive to the reactions of listeners, and have their antennae out for possible signs of discomfort. If your student senses that you are uncomfortable, he will try even harder not to stutter, which might actually increase his dysfluency. As he talks, try to give your student your undivided attention, and respond encouragingly with nods and smiles. In addition, maintain natural eye contact, respond patiently and calmly, and do not interrupt. Avoid rushing him or conveying time pressure. If you have trouble understanding what he said, repeat it back to him to see if you understood correctly, or ask him to repeat it to you. But don't guess at the meaning or pretend you understand when you do not.
Avoid drawing attention to his stuttering. You do not want to finish his sentences, supply him with words during speech blocks, give him suggestions or tricks about how to avoid stuttering, or even comment on his speech. Suggesting that he "relax," "slow down," or "start over" is unlikely to lessen his stuttering. Rather, the underlying message from those suggestions is that you are uncomfortable with his stuttering, which might make him more self-conscious about his speech and more likely to stutter.
About Ken Shore
Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist who has worked in various public schools for more than 25 years. He has authored six books and produced a book and video series on bullying for schools and parent organizations called The ABCs of Bullying Prevention. Click to read a complete bio. For information on how to obtain his books and videos, go to his Web site.