“Stammering affects about one in twenty under – fives, and by school age that is likely to have fallen eventually to about one in eighty children, reducing to one in a hundred adults in every language and culture. It is a significant communication difficulty but with support no child or young person should be held back!”

I had a long career in education as a lecturer in colleges, a teacher and a SENCO in secondary schools, eventually working as the deputy head of a large mixed 11-18 high school, before I went on to become the education officer for the British Stammering Association (BSA). That might seem rather a change of direction but it tied in with my hopes of improving the educational experiences of children and young people who stammer, because I had been one of them, and appreciated just how difficult it had been before the BSA had put stammering on the agenda and developed accessible online resources.

What to say about stammering? Well one of its odd characteristics came into my mind today when I was musing on this blog whilst walking my little dog. Children who stammer will often be fluent when talking to their pets, or their toys, or when they are whispering, singing or playing with friends and yet may stammer when they are interrupted and expected to speak. I can still remember the expression on the face of my primary school teacher when she asked me a question when I was playing an imaginary game with my friends in the playground. I was talking quite happily in my role in the game, but completely blocked as I struggled to speak to the teacher. This is typical of stammering, it can come and go, even in the same conversation. Also, it is completely unique in the effects it may have on each person at any particular time; this can perplex and worry parents and teachers and may make the child feel confused and perhaps anxious about talking.

What really makes a difference at home and in school for a child who stammers? Good communication and partnership.

In education settings this means establishing good practice for all pupils in communication by all staff and pupils within the school and its community. Stammering can be accurately identified by most people so, if it is heard for the first time by staff or parents, then it is always essential to take advice from a therapist who specialises in stammering. While waiting for the appointment, these simple tips will give support to the child.

The changes to the special educational and disability code of practice (SEND) encouraged this schools to create a good communication environment with its emphasis on high quality teaching and the necessity within that to support communication and interactions skills. Our resource on SEND shows parents of children who stammer how to navigate the provision available to them and encourages them to work positively with schools to secure their child’s entitlement as the Code has put children and parents at the centre of the discussion with staff about support. Any input from a speech and language therapist is key to these discussions.

Thankfully, I have seen a tremendous improvement in the understanding of speech, language and communication needs in schools and consequently of stammering to which the BSA education service has contributed considerably with specialist resources for early years’ practitioners, teachers and parents that supplement the work of all the staff and therapists who work individually with children and young people. The BSA general resources explains all the different aspects of stammering and reassure parents in particular that they did not cause the stammering in any way as we know that it is caused by the physiological development of the brain in the young child, and at that age intervention gives the best chance of recovery. I have experienced the success of early intervention with a young child in my own family as well as having read about it in the research, so I know from personal experience how important it is.

Within the family it is often hard to maintain this good communication environment, particularly for siblings, who may yearn to hurry up the child who stammers, say words for him, and perhaps even engage in thoughtless imitation and teasing. Such behaviour is generally common in every family, particularly among children who are near in age and most parents try to develop strategies to help all their children to understand each other’s needs and live co-operatively together.

This is a learning process for all children and includes the child who stammers who may be tempted to retaliate in some way that may not involve hurtful comments, but certainly can cause problems. Only rarely is stammering associated with other more complex difficulties so the child who stammers may talk differently but will have the same range of personal characteristics and ability as those who do not stammer, and may be just as capable of contributing to sibling conflict. ICAN have produced a useful fact sheet about sibling issues for parents of a child with a speech, language and communication needs.

The BSA Education Helpline

Through this I offer support to enquirers who are mainly parents, but some are therapists and school staff. As might be expected, with all the online resources the BSA have produced, only the most serious of cases, which can be quite heart-breaking for a family, require this service. This extract from a mother’s writing in one such case is self- explanatory and was eventually resolved by a move to another primary school. This is an extreme example of the worst case scenario for a child who stammers, but it demonstrates that there still much work to be done by the BSA.

“Your advice and support enabled us to find the strength yesterday afternoon to submit the application form for a school transfer as we know things will not get any better for her at her present school. Hopefully her health will now improve too. She has had to leave Breakfast Club and After School Club at her present school due to bullying regarding her disfluency (my employer’s kindly let me change my hours to allow me to pick her up and my mother now takes her to school) but the situation in the actual classroom with her teacher and peers is still unacceptable. She has never had SEN support at her present school, as they deny she even has disfluency.’’

The bigger picture- stammering in the context of national provision for speech, language and communication needs in schools

Since 2009, our efforts at the BSA to raise awareness and knowledge of support strategies for stammering in schools has been immeasurably helped by the Bercow Report on speech, language and communication provision in school and the work of ‘The Communication Trust’ (TCT) on implementing that Report. The Trust has produced high quality resources over the years for education settings, developed communication projects to model good practice in schools, and brought together through its Consortium the specialist organisations, like the BSA, which work in the SLCN field. The Trust has built up connections with schools, provided training and generally put SLCN on the map. Regrettably, the future of the Trust is uncertain because of funding difficulties. Consequently, I worry that if the Trust is unable to provide its services to schools, the positive climate for SLCN will diminish over time. Without the national platform the Trust provided for small specialist voluntary organisations like the BSA our work will be infinitely more challenging. We will struggle to find the resources to meet that challenge, as we do not receive government funding and are dependent on trusts and individuals!!

Stammering hurts, the BSA is doing its best to keep it on the agenda for families and schools, so any support you can give is welcome: membership is free and gives us a louder voice when we seek funding! British Stammering Association

Since this article was written the British Stammering Association have changed their name to STAMMA.

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