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Helping children who stammer

Alison Whyte Alison Whyte | 16:45 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The excitement around the film The King’s Speech seems a world away to children with stammers, who are struggling to be heard in school.  

Many young children stumble over words, but most go on to speak fluently. Stammering is a debilitating speech impediment which can damage a child’s confidence. It tends to run in families, it mainly affects boys and some research suggests a glitch in the neural wiring of the brain. Some children repeat words or consonants, others have a block, when no sound comes out. Some stamp their feet, twitch or contort their faces or bodies.

My 19-year-old son Max has stammered since he was five. He was lucky to be referred to the Michael Palin Centre, which is the only specialist centre in the UK offering therapy to children who stammer. They gave him techniques to help him become more fluent and we learned how to help him feel less stressed and more confident.

Teenage boy talking on mobile phone @ goldenangel - fotolia

Around five in every 100 children stammer, but research carried out by the centre showed that many teachers don’t know how to deal with it. Some children they interviewed said they were treated as though they had learning difficulties at school. Many said they felt ignored, overlooked, embarrassed or frustrated. 

The Centre has developed a Stammering Information Programme to educate teaching staff about stammering. The British Stammering Association is also developing a new resource for parents which they plan to launch in the autumn. 

We contacted Max’s primary school so that teachers, teaching assistants and dinner ladies knew about his stammer. Max was given a ‘statement’, but we were never aware that he received any special help. 

For Max, the transfer to secondary school was very stressful - meeting new students, having several different teachers and trying to assert himself in the playground presented huge challenges. Children are experts at hiding their stammers, they often avoid speaking in class or clown around at the back, so it’s important to tell all the teachers about your child’s stammer. 

The Michael Palin centre advised us to inform the school and we always asked how Max was coping with his stammer during parent’s evenings. Teachers need to know that making presentations and speaking to groups are especially scary for stammering children. 

Max found that teachers all took a different approach. The key thing is to talk to your child about how things are going at school and to contact the school, if you have any concerns. 

There are some things parents can do to help – try to reduce stress at home because being tired or under pressure, makes the stammer worse. Listen attentively and maintain good eye contact.  Don’t interrupt and don’t try to finish his sentences. 

Like other parents of children who stammer, we were convinced we’d done something wrong. Parents don’t cause children to stammer, but there are lots of things we can do to help. And the earlier we put them into practice the greater the chance of recovery.  

Alison Whyte is a freelance journalist.

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