Do's and Don'ts when Speaking with Someone Who Stutters
original author: Sara Mullenmaster, former student
revised by: Cindy S. Spillers, web master
Many people do not know how to respond to a
child or adult who stutters. Some believe that telling the person
to slow down, think carefully before you speak, take your time,
etc., will help the person to speak more fluently. These statements
do not help and often make the situation worse, especially for
children. Knowing how to and how not to respond to a person's
dysfluencies can really help promote more fluent speech.
Hearing somebody stutter for the first time catches us by surprise
because we don't expect it. The person looks normal so we expect
the person to talk normally, too. Often a listener's first reaction
is surprise and shock. When we are surprised by something, our
faces show it: our eyes get big and our jaw drops open. Stuttering
can be uncomfortable to listen to, making us want to turn our
heads or back away from the situation, as well. When caught in
an uncomfortable, surprising situation, some people react by laughing
because they are not sure what response to have. When young children
stutter adults sometimes think they are stuttering on purpose
and the adults will become angry with the child. It is important
to recover from this initial shock quickly, realize that the person
is not pretending or stuttering on purpose, and to regain composure
so that we can take control of our reactions and act with intention. The follow general
suggestions will help regardless of whether the person who stutters
is a child or adult. The Stuttering Foundation of America (SFA) has a variety of resources and publications that contain helpful suggestions.
- Listen to the content of the message rather than to how the
message is coming out.
- Keep natural eye contact with the person to show that you
are listening and are interested in their message. "Natural"
does not mean staring at the person; nor does it mean avoiding
looking at the person. Pay attention to how often and for how
long you usually look at another speaker and then try that with
the person who stutters.
- Let your posture, your facial expressions, your manner, and
your voice show that you are listening and are interested and
that you are not embarrassed.
- Resist the temptation to finish the person's sentences or
fill in words because this usually does not help. People who
stutter know what they want to say; they just need more time
getting their message out.
- Telling the person to slow down, relax, or take a deep breath
usually does not help either and often demeans them.
- Instead of telling the person to slow down, try using a slower,
more relaxed speaking rate yourself. This may help relieve the
feeling of time pressure and it will show them that you have
time to talk.
- People who stutter usually have more difficulty controlling
their speech on the telephone. If you pick up the telephone and
hear nothing or hear gasping, it may be a person who stutters.
- Treat the person who stutters with the same level of dignity
and respect as you treat other people.
Specific suggestions for children who stutter:
- Use shorter, simpler sentences when speaking to your child.
Using too long of sentences makes what you say harder to understand,
and the child may try to match your sentence lengths.
- Speak slowly and clearly when talking to your child. This
provides a good model for your child and is more effective than
telling your child to slow down.
- Allow pauses. After speaking, give your child time to respond
to your statements. In addition, pause a second or so before
responding to your childs questions or comments. Talking
in a slow, relaxed rate and pausing between statements allows
the child time to collect his/her thoughts and respond more fluently.
- Increase the situations in which your child is most fluent.
If your child is more fluent during bedtime stories, extend this
time by reading one more book at bedtime or provide other reading
opportunities throughout the day. Success in one situation builds
confidence and leads success in more situations.
- Reduce pressure to communicate. Limit the number of questions
you ask your child and ask only one question at a time. Questions
demand that your child respond immediately.
- Provide opportunities for your child to speak without competition
and distractions from other family members. This allows time
for your child to finish his/her statements and diminishes frustration.
- Recognize that certain situations can make the child more
dysfluent: feeling rushed to talk, excitement, fatigue, unfamiliar
situations, unknown speakers, arguing.
- Maintain a healthy, routine schedule. Make sure your child
has proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and follows a somewhat
- Watch for signs of emotional tension and frustration and
try to remove your child from the situation if necessary.
- Prepare your child for activities and situations that will
take place during holidays, birthday parties, etc. For example,
let your child know ahead of time where you are going, who is
going to be there, how long you will be there, etc. This will
reduce some of the anxiety and uncertainty your child may be
- Talk openly to your child about their difficulty speaking
but do not make a big issue out of it. If the childs difficulty
is not talked about, s/he may feel ashamed about the stuttering
or feel s/he is doing something wrong.
- Do not encourage your child to use tricks, such as substituting
words or tapping a foot, to help her/him get through a moment
of stuttering. These tricks do not really help and eventually
become part of the stuttering pattern. In the long run, they
can make the stuttering more conspicuous.
- Do not let teasing from siblings or friends go unrecognized.
Take siblings/friends out of sight and sound of the dysfluent
child, and talk to them.
Many of the suggestions above also apply to teachers. In addition,
teachers can take other steps to help make the child who stutters
feel comfortable in the classroom instead of feeling anxious and
What Teachers Can Do:
- Meet with the child's parents before school begins to learn
about their concerns and expectations.
- Talk with the speech clinician at your school to see what
suggestions he/she may have for the child. What needs does the
child have? It may be helpful to do this before speaking with
the child's parents.
- Encourage positive communication skills in the classroom:
do not interrupt someone when they are talking, talk for, or
finish thoughts and statements for anyone else.
- Avoid, as much as possible, treating the child with dysfluencies
differently from others in the classroom. It is important that
the child does not feel any differently than the other children
by receiving "special treatment." The child who stutters
should be held to the same academic and social standards as the
other children in the classroom.
- Commend the child when he/she participates in classroom discussions.
Praise what they say, not how they say it.
- If the child is teased by classmates, make sure to talk to
the child first before confronting the teasers. Listen to what
the child has to say, how he/she is feeling. If the child agrees
that you speak to the teasers, pull them aside, away from the
child, and tell them why their behavior is inappropriate.
- If appropriate, it may benefit the child if you talk to the
class about stuttering. It is important to get permission from
the child and the child's parents.
- Do not call on students in a specific order. People who stutter
build up tension and anxiety when they know their turn is coming
because they anticipate that they will stutter. It is best to
call on the child early on in the process.
- For oral presentations, encourage the child to practice the
oral presentation requirements at home. It may even be helpful
for the child to practice in the classroom to relieve some anxiety.
Be sure to ask the child about how they feel about doing an oral
presentation and what could be done to make it a little less
It is important to remember that there is no difference between
people who stutter and people who do not stutter except for difficulty
getting words out. People who stutter, need patience and acceptance
from family, friends, and teachers. The suggestions provided can
help parents, teachers, and others provide a nurturing environment
that promote fluency for the dysfluent person.
Revised June 2011
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