October 22nd is International Stammering Awareness Day. It aims to raise awareness about the seventy million people across the globe who suffer with stammering*. It could be on certain words, in certain situations, or in general, but the impact on sufferers is the same: a communication problem that severely affects their confidence and quality of life.
We all have moments where we lose our train of thought or forget a word, but in the case of people who stammer, there can be moments of prolonged hesitation, repetition of sounds or words, and times when literally no sound is made (silent blocking).
Many people do not know how to react appropriately when someone stammers. Popular culture has often increased social stigma by creating either comic (Porky Pig) or mentally-unstable (Norman Bates) characters who stammer.
It’s only recently, with the success of films like The King’s Speech, that a more meaningful dialogue has opened-up about the causes, therapies and long-term issues surrounding stammering.
For children who stammer, life can be a constant struggle to be understood. It can lead to frustration, anger, behavioural issues, poor confidence, and withdrawal from social situations. Many children are bullied because of their stammer and it can affect their education and employment chances as adults.
Early intervention is vital, and nurseries are in an excellent position to increase awareness and offer a supportive and nurturing environment that helps develop language and communication.
Stammering is not unusual
Stammering affects people from every culture, social status and age group. Approximately 5% of young children experience some difficulty with fluency growing up. Whilst most cases resolve without intervention, about 1% of people will continue to stammer as adults; men being four times more likely to stammer than women.
Lewis Carroll, Gareth Gates, Rowan Atkinson, Ed Sheeran and Winston Churchill all fought hard to overcome childhood stammers.
What causes Stammering?
Stammering is NOT caused by nervousness. It is a neurological condition caused by physical differences in the anatomy of the brains of people who stutter, compared to those who do not. There can also be differences in the way the brain functions and responds to emotional inputs. Onset is usually between 2½-3 years.
Genetics also play an important part, and stuttering can run in families, often being common amongst siblings.
The severity and frequency of stammering varies between individuals, but there are also environmental, linguistic, physical and psychological factors that can also have an effect.
Is there a cure?
There is no magical ‘cure’ for stuttering although early intervention in the pre-school years is vital. Research shows that if tackled early, before psychological issues such as self-consciousness or anxiety become established, then most children can learn to speak more fluently.
Recognising the symptoms and referring children to a qualified speech and language therapist is essential in under-5s and the British Stammering Association has set up the “Every Child’s Chance of Fluency” project which aims to improve therapeutic services available to children.
How can you help children in your setting who stutter?
- Improve education
Improving your team’s understanding and knowledge about stuttering will help disseminate best-practice ideas amongst early-years’ professionals. International Stammering Awareness Day is an ideal opportunity for some staff training or to increase awareness in children. Be wary of singling out individuals however, so they don’t become more anxious or self-conscious.
One important action could be to dispel the myths that stuttering is caused by nervousness, or that people who stutter are less intelligent, which are simply untrue.
- Develop better listening skills
People who stammer like to talk for themselves so don’t be tempted to finish their sentences. Instead, the advice is to listen with patience. Do not be tempted to give advice either, such as ‘slow down’, ‘take a breath’ or ‘relax’. This can exacerbate the problem and shows a misunderstanding of the real causes of stammering.
- Singing and choral speaking
People who stammer are normally fluent when singing, speaking in chorus, or whispering, so making use of these in games or social activities can help children who stammer and build their confidence in social situations.
- Emphasise communication rather than fluency
Most people’s goal in speaking is to engage in good communication – i.e. to have their needs and feelings understood accurately. This goal should be prioritised over emphasising perfect fluency in people who stammer.
This means finding other ways in which children can communicate more easily – perhaps using alternative words, images or gestures which can all help communication. This will lessen the importance of perfect fluency, reducing anxiety and frustration too.
Ways to mark International Stammering Awareness Day
The British Stammering Association want people to talk more about stammering. Here are some ways they suggest you can mark International Stammering Awareness Day:
- Wear a sea-green ribbon, or sea-green-coloured clothes as a conversation starter. Sea-green has been chosen because it represents the bond between peace/calmness (blue) and liberation (green) – important factors for people trying to overcome a stammer.
- Wear a BSA wristband, available from their website.
- Use social media to spread the message.
- Create and put up awareness posters.
- Invite parents, carers, governors and friends to a display or talk.
For more information, visit the British Stammering Association website: https://www.stammering.org/
* In the USA and Australia, the word ‘stutter’ is used more frequently than ‘stammer’. ‘Dysfluency’ is also used synonymously in the UK.