Back to School Preparations for Children Who Stutter
When I walked to a nearby shopping center this week, the parking lot outside the office supply store was extraordinarily busy. Inside, children strolled up and down the aisles chattering about new classrooms and selecting school supplies. It was back-to-school shopping time.
The beginning of a new school year brings with it an abrupt lifestyle change. We can help children transition from the casual summer months to the more rigorous academic calendar by making small changes several days before school begins. The National Center for Learning Disabilities suggests
1. re-establishing bedtime routines before the start of school,
2. preparing a location and schedule for doing homework,
3. collecting and organizing needed supplies,
4. reviewing basic academic material,
5. building excitement for school, and,
6. reading books together about going back to school.
The child who stutters has an even longer to-do list. She has the added responsibility of
1. educating her new teacher(s) and peers about stuttering,
2. planning new communication goals, and,
3. role-playing options for how to cope with teasing.
I read through print copies of newsletters I’d saved over the years in search of tips for going back-to-school. These newsletters from Friends, The National Stuttering Association and The Stuttering Foundation are priceless resources for family-friendly information. They are filled with brief, understandable articles by children, parents, and professionals. I was thrilled to find that back issues were available on the organizations’ websites.
A few back-to-school activities showed up repeatedly: writing a letter to the new teacher(s), planning a class presentation, and dealing with teasing. The National Stuttering Association had a brochure about Stuttering and Reading Fluency also. I was grateful this information was so easy for families to locate and download. In this article, I’d like us to think about skills and attitudes that may be preconditions to accomplishing any of these self-advocacy activities.
The child feels respected. I have listened to some children, with and without speech/language differences, talk about school as an intimidating institution in which expectations feel overwhelming and dehumanizing. When school personnel view students in terms of performance data, I understand why children hide their stuttering. A former student of public school speech therapy writes, “By counting each stuttered word or reporting specific moments of dysfluency in the classroom, I would argue that this places an unnecessary burden on the young stutterer. I have been lucky to witness the extraordinary work of numerous special educators who resist this pressure. Take it from my firsthand experience, educators are able to make a lasting impact by working closely with their student without quantifying his or her communicative performance.” I think a child will need to feel the warmth of personal concern from a teacher before starting a conversation about stuttering.
The child can discuss thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Most moms of older children tell me they seldom talk about stuttering. Parents of preschoolers worry that saying something will make the stuttering worse. I sympathize. Inviting children to talk about stuttering is a delicate process and I’ve had many mishaps trying to talk about ‘the elephant in the room.’ I’ve had students cry, change the topic, act silly or aggressive, or stare at me silently when I ask them specifics about their speech and experiences with communication. Stuttering is an intimately personal topic and should be approached carefully. Peter Reitzes experimented with humor by asking children to write funny laws such as ”Anyone who tells a child who stutters to ‘slow down’ will have to walk around all day with his or her shoelaces tied together.” This humor helped move children into discussions of how to educate and advocate. “Creating new laws for people who stutter proved to be a valuable tool for discussing stuttering in an open, fun, and productive manner.” 
I don’t anticipate much progress in fluency therapy until a child and family can take a step back and observe stuttering with a cool head and forgiving heart. Desensitization to the moment of stuttering is, in my opinion, essential. It’s an issue that resonates across sessions and communication goals. It impacts multiple components of a comprehensive speech therapy program. Negative emotional reactions to stuttering create a fog, clouding our senses, preventing a clear perception of reality and blinding us to creative solutions.
If a child is developing sense of empowerment and can talk about his communication needs, then speech therapy can confront the issues children who stutter encounter at school.
Quick, verbal self-defense is especially difficult for children who stutter. Even the cleverest come-back can be too difficult to say right when it’s needed the most. So alternate ways of coping with teasing are important.
Listeners don’t know stuttering. Teachers and peers will need some information. If a child would like to write a letter to her teacher, there are examples on the Friends website. The August 2010 issue has Approaching Your Teacher About Stuttering by Elizabeth Mendez who writes, “Think about a fresh start and consider being open about something about you that has made you become the amazing and strong person you are today. Consider sharing with your teachers your stuttering and for those who can do the extra mile, educate them with resources.” Resources are free at the National Stuttering Association website including the comprehensive brochure “What Teachers Need to Know to Help Children Who Stutter.” The Stuttering Foundation has a booklet, DVD, brochure, and new storybook about teachers. I recommend that a parent be proactive as well, arranging frequent parent-teacher check-ins.
Some children may want to give a class presentation about stuttering with the help of their speech language pathologist. The National Stuttering Association and the Stuttering Foundation furnish guidelines for putting such a presentation together. The following issues of Reaching Out have examples:
A Proud Mom’s Story by Sue Parisi (Sept-Oct 2008)
Does Anyone Have Any Questions? By Ellie Hooey (Jan-Feb 2009)
Telling the Class by Francine J Bliss (March-April 2010)
Children who stutter are teased. Constance Dugan has a very thoughtful article to accompany her “Teasing Inventory for School-Age Kids Who Stutter” in the 2006 International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference. She spends a few minutes of every speech therapy session filling out the teasing inventory. Repetition helps children get comfortable with the process. She finds that the scale format helps children to respond and teaches them about intensity. “It is important to recognize not only different feelings but different intensities. For example, ‘annoyed’ reflects less distress than ‘furious’.” The few, carefully crafted, short-answer questions “communicate the old advice: Honor your feelings but monitor your actions. Following these up by “How did you feel then?” can help kids become aware that they have some power to reduce their own suffering.”
Gail Wilson Lew’s article “Stuttering and Teasing” in the Nov-Dec 2009 Reaching Out reminds us why children may not seek help for teasing. She writes, “One day, in 9th grade Spanish class, the boy behind me started to pull on my pony tail. I did not want to turn around because I was afraid I would get in trouble with the teacher. I was also reluctant to tell the teacher, because I would then have to speak up and explain: thus, the possibility of stuttering and embarrassment.” Later in the article she explains, “A child who stutters does not want others to know that he stutters, because he does not want to be ‘different.’ He wants to be accepted. A lot of pressure may be lifted if a child lets people know that he stutters and does not try to hide it.”
Reading aloud and reading assessments can be demoralizing. I appeal to everyone who reads this article to download the brochure “Stuttering and Reading Fluency: Information for Teachers.” The national initiative to promote reading is admirable. However, it is placing excessive pressure on children who stutter. “Reading aloud can be quite stressful for those who stutter, mostly because they are worried about how others might react to their stuttering.” Also, “a child should not be penalized for moments of stuttering when assessing reading fluency. Fluency of speech is not the same as fluency of decoding.”
I agree that children, in partnership with parents and educators, can advocate for their communication needs. I also think that advocacy is predicated on healthy communication attitudes and sensitive support from others. If teasing crosses the line and becomes bullying, my blog of 9/6/12 “Bullying Prevention and Intervention Laws Could Help Children Who Stutter” may prove useful.
I wish you lots of fun friendships, fond memories and academic success as you embark upon another school year!
 According the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities of People Who Stutter, “A person who stutters has the responsibility to... 1.understand that listeners or conversation partners may be uninformed about stuttering and its ramifications…” International Stuttering Association http://www.isastutter.org/what-we-do/bill-of-rights-and-responsibilities
 Peter Reitzes, “It Outghta Be a Law!” Reaching Out, October-November-December 2005.
 Reaching Out July /Aug 2010 http://www.friendswhostutter.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/reachout/RO_2010_Aug.pdf
 Constance Dugan (2006) “Teasing Inventory for School Age Kids Who Stutter” International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad9/papers/therapy9/dugan9.html