Stuttering therapy can cause anxiety and frustration for everyone! For you, it may increase your heart rate just thinking “How do I do this effectively and not cause emotional harm to this child?” For your students, it may just be overwhelming and frustrating. Why does stuttering therapy cause this reaction in all of us? It is because there is no way to completely eliminate stuttering. Stuttering therapy is a lot of work for everyone involved but especially for the kids. Families are looking to you to stop the stuttering and you will need to explain that it is a battle that will be fought daily.
Since we can fix articulation errors, build and expand language skills, and teach non-verbal children to communicate using pictures or devices, it is increasingly frustrating that we cannot completely “clear up” stuttering or make the battle easier for our children. Plus, stuttering often impacts our children not only academically but emotionally and socially. So, what can you do?
BE HONEST WITH THEM, THEIR FAMILIES, and YOURSELF
When I work with school-age children who stutter, I speak with them honestly along with their families. I explain that I can teach them techniques and provide tools to modify their stutter and shape their stuttering into more fluent speech but that they will have to do the work. I also stress that ‘the communicative message’ is more important to focus on than the way it is expressed. In other words, I want to create an environment of acceptance and knowing that what the child has to say and their continued communicative efforts (with or without the stutter) is more important than if they are stuttering. I do not want our students to shy away from communicating because they are fearful that someone will tease them, speak for them, or interrupt them. Parent education is important too. The Stuttering Foundation of America has a wonderful handout for parents to talk to their kids at home and they provide additional resources.
INCREASE THEIR KNOWLEDGE
When students leave my speech room, I want them to feel empowered instead of deflated. So many students have told me that they are limited by their stuttering and so I always go over the Famous People Who Stutter and who did not let it limit them. Many of my students were excited to see that this year our current President, President Joe Biden, is a person who stutters and that he has been in politics for years. This has also helped many of my kids see that they are not alone. I also teach them about their speech machine, typical vs. non-typical disfluencies, and different strategies that they can use prior to speaking and while in the middle of a disfluent event that they can use if they find them helpful.
TEACH THE USE OF STUTTERING MODIFICATION AND FLUENCY SHAPING STRATEGIES in a VARIETY of ENVIRONMENTS
Once students have the use of these tools in a structured setting, take them out of this setting. Get out of your speech room. Take them to the school library, cafeteria, nurse’s office, school counselor, etc… Change up the environments, the people they interact with, and the communication demands. I reach out and train parents on the use of these tools too. Again, I usually explain to parents that the idea is not to be 100% fluent but to provide the tools to shape the stuttering into more fluent speech. I ask parents to provide me with feedback when they go out into the community and reinforce letting their children speak for themselves using their tools. In other words, no ordering at restaurants, movies, or the library for their child. Providing the opportunity to practice using their tools in the “real world” helps them generalize using these tools in everyday opportunities.
DISCUSS SOCIAL and EMOTIONAL COMPONENTS
I have a confession, some days we simply do not worry about using our tools in speech. Some days we just talk and listen. Stuttering can result in a lot of emotions and fears for students. On several occasions, we have just played Jenga. The rule to our game is simple. As we take a piece off the Jenga tower, we share a fear or something that upsets us about our speech. I have found that by having them talk about their fears and emotions in this way, my students realize that they really are not alone in their fears and feelings. It really creates a dialogue on how we can approach and conquer these fears. It also provides me with additional insight on how I can help students with desensitization. After the Jenga tower has tumbled, we work in reverse and rebuild the tower. As we rebuild the tower, we help rebuild each other too. We take turns stating something we appreciate, respect, or value in ourselves and in our peers. These are not simply nice statements such as “John has a nice smile.” These are statements that have value such as “I appreciate that John is friendly to everyone and willing to help anyone.”
TREAT THE WHOLE FAMILY
Providing families with education, resources, and tips to communicate can help the student tremendously! I have had families that were very receptive to the parent training and students made greater gains and became more confident quickly. Unfortunately, I have also had families that never became a partner in the process, and many times I found that those students were less likely to invest in the process too. Family buy-in is important because they only see us for a short amount of time, if families are involved it is more likely to help with generalization and make the work of using the tools more commonplace.