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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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