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How to Support Students Who Stutter in Class

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As schools resume this fall, teachers may encounter students like Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old Democratic National Convention speaker who shared the story of how Joe Biden, the party's nominee for president, helped him overcome his stutter.

Like Harrington, Biden struggled with his stutter as a child.

"It was amazing to hear that someone like me became vice president," Harrington said during his nearly two-minute speech.

Somewhere between 5 percent to 10 percent of all children will stutter at some period in their life, with the condition lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several years, National Institutes of Health data indicates. Boys are two to three times more likely to stutter than girls.

To help educators and parents who want to better understand what stuttering is, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has produced a toolkit that offers tips on how to support people who stutter, insights on treatment options, and advice on how to address common misperceptions about the communication disorder.

"There's going to be a lot more focus on communication disorders in general, and stuttering specifically, because of the use of masks, because of the use of Zoom," said Diane Paul, the director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

"The biggest challenge is that people don't understand that the stuttering itself doesn't mean that what [people who stutter] have to say is less important. Focus on what the message is, not how the message is conveyed."

The toolkit offers basic tips for communicating with students who stutter, including:

  • Practice patience: Give students time to get their thoughts and words out. Do not try to finish their sentences or assume you know what they are trying to say. Ask for clarification if you do not understand.
  • Monitor body language: Do not avert your eyes when they speak. It could send a signal that you are frustrated or disinterested. Try to keep eye contact when possible.
  • Build understanding: Having a stutter is not an indication that a student is incapable of participating in classroom discussions. Encourage students, if they are comfortable, to discuss their stutter with classmates.

To help students who stutter participate in virtual class discussions via Zoom or similar platforms, the toolkit recommends that students and teachers use the "raise hand" feature to give everyone the opportunity to join the conversation or establish a "pause rule" between speakers to prevent students from frequently interrupting or talking over classmates who stutter. 

During in-person instruction, students who stutter should wear clear masks, if possible, Paul said. Without it, teachers and classmates may not realize a student wants to talk but may be struggling to get the words out.

Related Reading

One-on-One Speech Therapy Goes Digital

Scholars Say Causes of Stuttering Are Multiple and Connected

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