Bullying Prevention and Intervention Laws Could Support Children Who Stutter

 National Stuttering Association (NSA) conventions inspire me to rethink speech therapy. That’s why I love to attend. This year’s convention, held in Tampa, Florida, left me pondering how to place greater emphasis on advocacy as an essential communication skill. Advocacy goals could easily dovetail with America’s growing concern over bullying (1). New local laws in many states require school districts address this problem.

Skill at personal advocacy is a valid therapy objective. It used to be that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) focused on fluency. But success with speech change varies one person to the next and science has not yet figured out why.  In the meantime, therapy outcomes have broadened to include multiple aspects of communication.  Some SLPs take advantage of this trend to justify special education for children who stutter (CWS)(2).Others do not.  I have watched this process over the past 30 years. I witnessed and I read heated arguments between university professors over exactly what the role of the SLP should be. While this divisive dialogue drags on, what can a parent do right now to help the child who stutters?

I propose parents find out if their state has enacted a law regarding bullying.  I expect that when a parent provides the school with brochures from the Stuttering Foundation (3) AND a printout of their district’s legally mandated Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, we may see more CWS receive greater attention. Laws to promote a “healthy school climate” benefit all children. This means that when CWS are denied special legal protections because they are denied special education, their parents may have a legal alternative.

The 187th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on May 3, 2010, approved “An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools.” (4) The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education responded with Bullying and Prevention Resources (5) and a Model Bullying and Intervention Plan (6).  My own school district copied this plan, adding details about specific programs (7) and the administrative hierarchy responsible for their implementation.  My district also has a District Improvement Plan that includes “Safe Learning Environment” as a target. I believe presenting this kind of information to school personnel adds weight and credibility to parents’ pleas for support for their children.

 “The finding that the risk of being bullied in adolescents who stutter is high when compared to their fluent peers should be of considerable concern. Speech-language pathologists need to be aware of this information as they often serve as the strongest advocates for students who stutter in the school setting.” (8)  Research indicates that children who stutter “are mimicked, made fun of, called names, physically bullied, and sometimes subjected to threats… It is clear that stuttering is an identifiable difference that invites bullying.” (9) This information is vital because mandatory professional development for school personnel must include “research findings on bullying, including information about specific categories of students who have been shown to be particularly at risk for bullying in the school environment…[with] a particular focus on the needs of students…whose disability affects social skills development.” (10)

Social skills development in adolescents includes “initiating interactions, self-disclosure, and intimacy in conversations and activities…assertiveness, responsiveness, and versatility. These skills allow speakers to make requests, actively disagree, express their feelings, initiate, maintain, and disengage in conversations…in multiple settings and with different conversational partners…” (11) Some school age children who stutter are at risk of falling behind in the development of these social/communicative skills because they avoid situations in which speech is difficult and in which they risk ridicule.

 “For adolescents who stutter, changing motor speech behaviors may not result in accompanying attitudinal and cognitive changes. Programs that reinforce assertiveness skills, positive communication models, acceptance of stuttering, and ways of dealing with stuttering may actually assist in dealing with potential co-occurring issues like bullying.” (12)

Again and again my students avoid advocating for themselves. How many times have I heard children say that teachers and friends understand stuttering already so there is no need to discuss it?!  Everybody knows I stutter and it’s no big deal, they say. Yet these same children report avoidance and negative attitudes on written checklists. They cry about school assignments, allow others to speak for them, ‘forget’ to talk with teachers, limit class participation and/or avoid after school activities because they are experiencing so much stress over their speech. I respond by accepting the client in the moment. But maybe a little confrontation wouldn’t hurt. Exactly how could they handle some of these problems proactively?

Has speech therapy flaunted fluency in a variety of disguises? My lesson plans involve fluency enhancing techniques, voluntary stuttering, desensitization, situation hierarchies, English Language Arts, DAF, Audacity ®, and even concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy. Do all of these perpetuate a promise that the end-goal is greater fluency? When can a CWS share personal experiences, hopes and dreams, thoughts and feelings in a friendly conversational way that would shed light on social skills competency? How can speech therapy allocate time to the complementary goals of speech change and social skills development?

 Activities which blend social skills training with speech therapy could draw from resources approved by the school district, pragmatic language therapy materials already on the SLP’s bookshelf (14), or reader-friendly publications for the layperson (15). For example, scripts and role plays [Model Plan, IV. A. p. 6] could be about a stuttering-related problem. A program specifically for stuttering is available for grades 3-6 from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. (16)  The point is to be proactive. A person who stutters has the responsibility to “be conscious that he or she has the power to promote awareness about stuttering and its ramifications.” (17) An SLP can facilitate the development of advocacy skills by making it a greater priority and interfacing with bullying prevention programs.

My friend, Marybeth Allen, ran a workshop at the NSA convention for elementary school age children. It was called “What Bugs You?” Marybeth is a Clinical Supervisor at the University of Maine, the sweetest person ever, and my roommate. As I managed a craft hot glue gun, Marybeth charmed the children into making bugs out of styrofoam containers, fuzzy sticks, pompoms, colored paper and markers. Then she gave them a small piece of paper on which to write what bugs them about stuttering. They put their hand-written complaints into the bug. Topping of the list of complaints was teasing and bullying.

New bullying prevention and intervention laws may offer CWS some well-deserved special consideration. These laws may not qualify CWS for special education services, but, hopefully they will enlighten school personnel. Sadly, a publication by National Stuttering Association written specifically for SLPs, parents, teachers, administrators, and CWS is out of print. (18) It explained issues unique to CWS.  I get the feeling that many of these children are “below the radar,” keeping their stuttering and their suffering to themselves. Let’s hope that bullying prevention and intervention programs will improve the lives of our children as depicted in this video shared on the stutt-l@googlegroups.com:

Thank you,


(1)  stopbullying.gov http://www.stopbullying.gov/

(2)  Scott, L. (2010) Decoding IDEA Eligibility. [DVD] available at www.stutteringhelp.og

(3)  Stuttering: Straight Talk for Teachers, 8 Tips for Teachers, www.stutteringhelp.org

(5)  Bullying Prevention and Intervention Resources, http://www.doe.mass.edu/bullying/#1

(6)   Model Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, http://www.doe.mass.edu/bullying/ModelPlan.pdf   

(7)  Open Circle: Getting to the Heart of Learning,  http://www.open-circle.org/ ;

Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, http://webhost.bridgew.edu/marc/

(8)  Blood, G. & Blood, I. (2004) Bullying in Adolescents Who Stutter: Communicative Competence and Self-Esteem. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 31, p.76.

(9)  Langevin, M & Prasad, N.G.N. (2012) A Stuttering Education and Bullying Awareness and Prevention Resource: A Feasibility Study. Language, Speech, Hearing Services in Schools, 43, p. 345.

(10)               Model Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan, p. 4, II.B.(iv), http://www.doe.mass.edu/bullying/ModelPlan.pdf    

(11)               Blood G. & Blood, I p. 70.

(12)               Ibid. p. 76

(13)               Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Guidelines on Implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Curricula, http://www.doe.mass.edu/bullying/SELguide.pdf

(14)               I happen to own Kelly, A. (2002) Talkabout. UK: Speechmark Publishing Ltd.

(15)               Cooper, S. (2005) Speak Up and Get Along! Minneapolis, MN: free spirit publishing.

(16)               Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research. Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behavior (TAB) http://www.tab.ualberta.ca/

(17)               International Stuttering Association, Rights and Responsibilities of People Who Stutter http://www.isastutter.org/what-we-do/bill-of-rights-and-responsibilities

(18)               Flores, T. Ed. (2004 ) Bullying and Teasing: Helping Children Who Stutter , www.westutter.org

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