Stuttering: the elephant in the classroom

Everyone stumbles with their words

on occasion. While many aren’t

always fluent, most simply feel a little

embarrassed and quickly recover from the

incident. For those who suffer from stuttering,

each stumble can be a fearful, anxiety-filled

moment. A life filled with these difficult

experiences can potentially affect a person’s

self-image, personality and relationships.

The cause of stuttering, which affects up

to one in every nine children during the preschool

years, remains a mystery to scientists.

Normally appearing in children before

school age, it appears to stem from an issue

with neural speech processing.

According to Professor Mark Onslow,

Foundation Director of the Australian

Stuttering Research Centre at the University

of Sydney, “There has been a large amount of

brain imaging research that strongly suggests

stuttering is linked to a problem with neural

organisation of language. It is linked to the

brain having trouble organising the muscles

to coordinate rapidly enough to talk.”

If left untreated, stuttering can cause

devastating social anxieties, which can lay

the groundwork for underachievement at

school and reduced employment outcomes

later in life.

Professor Onslow estimates that as many

as one child in every large Australian

primary school classroom could stutter

but be undetected by teachers. “Children

who stutter in primary school often go

unnoticed. They become so anxious that

they sit in class and don’t say anything, and

effectively disappear,” he says. “Teachers

can make the world of difference to the lives

of children who stutter. A good teacher can

turn the school years from a daily ordeal

to a positive learning environment. They

can turn children’s lives around. If teachers

do not help children who stutter, primary

school can be a place where these children

can develop and sustain debilitating

social anxiety, which sows the seed for

underachievement at school and in the

world of work later in life.”

How can you help?

Traditionally, stuttering was treated in

school by forcing children who stuttered to

stand and talk in front of the class. In reality,

Professor Onslow says if teachers do this the

problem becomes exponentially worse.

“Teachers should talk to the individual

child and find out exactly what the child

wants, because every stuttering child

will have different wants and needs in the

classroom,” he advises. “It is a teacher’s role

to make the classroom feel like a safe space.

I advise that parents ensure teachers talk

to the child to find out what they can do to

make the child feel comfortable, safe and

not anxious in the classroom.”

In addition, Professor Onslow advises that

teachers, parents and friends listen patiently

while the stuttering child talks, not interrupt

them or finish their sentences. “Teachers

should also consult with parents and check

for signs of teasing or bullying. If bullying

is occurring, take an individual approach.

Speak to the children themselves as some

may not appreciate the teacher standing up

in class and saying, ‘Look, this child has a

problem with talking, it is not going to help if

you bully them.’”

When it comes to the child’s home life,

Professor Onslow recommends that parents

don’t attempt to change the family’s lifestyle.

“If you notice that your child is stuttering,

speak to a qualified speech pathologist

and organise a treatment that will help.

Families should not change their way of

life simply because one of the members

is stuttering; they should simply live life as

normal as possible and carry on as planned.

Successful treatment doesn’t involve

modifying the family’s environment at all.”

Can stuttering be cured?

While Professor Onslow doesn’t like to say

that stuttering can be “cured”, recent clinical

trials have shown that after a long period of

time, stuttering seems to go away and not

come back. “We are starting to get very

confident with the treatment, particularly

with young children. For example, we once

worked with a family who had a long history

of stuttering. The father, who had not been

able to pursue his preferred occupation

(he wanted to be a lawyer), suddenly

heard his young son begin to stutter so he

immediately took him to therapy.

“In that particular scenario, the stuttering

went away and the child did not face the

problems that the father faced. The child

also didn’t know that they experienced

treatment, years after it took place. We have

seen children at five years clinical follow-up

and they can’t even remember why they

came to therapy in the first place.”

Parents who are worried about

their children stuttering should seek

help immediately from a qualified

speech pathologist.

Professor Mark Onslow is the Foundation

Director of the Australian Stuttering Research

Centre at the Faculty of Health Sciences, The

University of Sydney. His background is speech

pathology, in which field he holds a Bachelor

of Applied Science, Master of Applied Science

and a Doctorate. He has taught university

courses in stuttering management in three

countries and currently teaches research

methods to doctoral students at the Australian

Stuttering Research Centre.


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