Teaching & Learning

Stuttering: A Challenging Condition

Educators deal with students’ (and sometimes their own) stuttering

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What do Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Emily Blunt, King George VI and Mel Tillis have in common? They didn’t let stuttering stop them from fulfilling their dreams.

Neither did Lonnie Eskridge, president of the Burton Elementary Teachers Association, classroom teacher at Oak Grove Elementary School in Porterville and former newspaper photographer. Eskridge is one of 70 million people around the world and more than 3 million in the United States managing this complex disorder. He hopes that National Stuttering Awareness Week (May 14-20, 2018) will increase public awareness about the condition and spotlight helpful activities educators can do for students, co-workers or others in their lives who stutter.

Stuttering may look like an easy problem that can be solved with simple advice, but for many it can be a lifelong challenge. The condition affects four times as many males as females. Approximately 5 percent of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or longer. Three-quarters of those will recover by late childhood.

“[Students who stutter] need to get their thoughts out. And we have to be patient enough to listen.” — Xena Wickliffe, Fresno Teachers Association

Teachers are not always sure of the best way to treat a stutterer in their classroom, and taking the wrong approach can worsen the situation, says Eskridge. Bullying can also be an issue.

Living with stuttering presents challenges

Eskridge’s paternal grandmother and father both stuttered, so his family sought therapy immediately. “They wanted me to avoid the torments they went through,” he says. “They secured a private therapist who came to my house for a while. I had speech therapy all through public school. Did it help? It certainly did not hurt, but there were no fantastical revolutionary moments that cured me. I guess every session helped somewhat, but I pray that current practice in the field has advanced from what was provided for me.”

Eskridge did not let his condition hold him back from participating in activities while growing up in Hayward and Red Bluff, where he attended high school. He played football, ran track, was a photographer for the school yearbook and newspaper, and sang in concert choir and smaller ensembles. (Research shows that many if not most stutterers sing fluently.)

Socially, he held his own, too. “Long after we graduated, a high school friend told me that our group of friends didn’t mind my stuttering — they just took it in stride. But when anyone from outside our group made fun of me, my friends would quickly and fiercely jump to my defense.”

Most teachers treated him like any other student — except for one.

“My junior high school shop teacher was explaining the tool storage area, looked right at me, and announced to the class, ‘If you can’t correctly say the name of the tool, you will have trouble here.’ I still vividly remember that moment.”

He spent years working as a photographer for Fresno area newspapers. After volunteering in his children’s classroom, he decided to become a teacher. It was a bold move to switch from taking pictures to a job that involves talking all day, but he’s been managing just fine for 24 years. He discovered that getting more sleep at night improves his fluency the following day, so he tries to get a good night’s sleep. He proudly says his “classroom voice” is fluent about 95 percent of the time.

“But when I leave the classroom and I speak with my peers, I will often have trouble. It almost seems that, adversely, when I am most comfortable with a person, I let down my guard and my disfluency increases. I don’t stutter a lot, but if the occasion is especially noticeable, I am silently bothered by it.”

He seldom stutters when speaking publicly in his role of chapter president. He admits, “I am a huge ham and love to be in the spotlight. Traditionally, most stutterers do not.”

He has theories about why people stutter and how they cope.

“Stutterers are always thinking several words ahead of our speech. If we fear we will ‘block’ on specific words or phonetic sounds, we will substitute another word, a synonym, for the troublesome words. We must have a huge vocabulary to smoothly accomplish this.”

Speech-language pathologists can help

“I wouldn’t say there’s a cure for stuttering, but many people overcome it,” says Xena Wickliffe, a speech-language pathologist at Norseman Elementary School in Fresno. She agrees with Eskridge that stutterers tend to think faster than other people. She says there is strong evidence that heredity plays a role in many cases.

Developing “breath support” is among the strategies she has students practice with her. Another is learning how to let out small amounts of air at the beginning of a sentence.

“There are all kinds of different strategies, and every person who stutters is different,” says Wickliffe, a member of the Fresno Teachers Association. “What works for one person might not work for another. Things must be tried with a therapist and student to see if they are effective, and we must help alleviate the anxiety and stress that comes with knowing you are going to stutter. It helps to practice what you want to say in different situations and settings. People may stutter the most when they are having a conversation and excited and trying to relay ideas off the top of their head.”

She encourages classroom teachers to work with the speech therapist, student and parents as a team to discuss strategies for helping students who stutter at home and at school.

“It’s best to avoid putting pressure on a student who may be nervous, but at some point, as therapy progresses, having a child speak out in class will need to be addressed. It’s definitely important to look at the emotional response of the student.”

Sometimes well-meaning people are tempted to finish the sentence of a stutterer because they feel uncomfortable, but it is not recommended.

“You want to help them out, it’s a natural thing, but they need to get their thoughts out,” says Wickliffe. “And we have to be patient enough to listen.”

She adds, “If you have questions or concerns about someone in your life who stutters or has or other communication challenges, please contact a speech-language pathologist in your school district or area.”


Do’s and don’ts for educators and others

Do…

  • Listen closely when the student speaks. Pay attention to what the student says, rather than the way it is said.
  • Provide opportunities for the student to talk to you without distractions or competition from classmates or others.
  • Limit the number of questions you ask a student, since questions demand the student make an immediate response.
  • Give the student enough time to talk, and give the student time to answer a question before asking a second question.
  • Recognize that certain environmental factors may have a negative affect on fluency: competition to speak, excitement, time pressure, arguing, fatigue, new situations, and unfamiliar listeners.
  • Repeat or rephrase what the student says to verify you understand it.
  • Expect the same quality and quantity of work from a student who stutters as one who doesn’t.

Don’t…

  • Say “Relax,” “Slow down,” “Take your time,” or “Think before you talk.”
  • Call attention to the student’s speech.
  • Place the student in situations where their speech would be on display.
  • Look distressed when the student is disfluent.
  • Interrupt the student.
  • Criticize or correct the student’s speech.
  • Complete the student’s sentences.

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