Column: How to help children who stammer

The Daily Times staff
The Daily Times

I asked Valerie Drollinger, a speech/language pathologist at San Juan Regional Medical Center, to respond to inquiries regarding stammering, also known as stuttering. Drollinger has provided service to children with communication disorders for more than 20 years.

Stammering is a communication disorder that affects the fluency of a child's speech. It begins during childhood and can last throughout a lifetime. Many parents question, "What causes stuttering?" or, "Did I do something to cause it?" The exact cause of stuttering is unknown, but recent studies show that genetics play a role. Other risk factors for developing a stutter include having a family member who persistently stutters, being male, starting to stutter after age 3, stuttering for more than six months and being anxious about speaking.

It is important to realize that everyone, at times, lacks fluency in their speech. Everybody is prone to repeat words or interject "um" or "uh" in sentences, when forming thoughts. The difference between "normal" disfluencies and "atypical" disfluencies is the quantity of stuttered moments and the quality of the disfluencies.

A stuttering disorder can disrupt communication in daily activities. Stuttering behaviors are seen in young children around the age of 2 and a half as they are actively acquiring language at a rapid rate and are trying to master the grammatical rules of their language. Going from a short, two-word sentence — "Mommy ball" — to a more complex sentence — "Mommy, I want the ball" — is difficult, and a child may repeat whole words as he develops language. This is a more typical type of stuttering.

Some examples of atypical stuttering include:

• Part-word repetitions: "W-W-W-Where are you going?"

• Sound prolongation: "FFFFFollow me."

• Interjections: "I want-um-um, you know, like, a Sprite." This child anticipates difficulties, so he uses interjections until he is able to say the word he desires.

• Blocks: A child opens his mouth to speak, but no sound is made. Often, parents can see struggling on their child's face.

Here are suggestions to help a child experience communicative success:

• First, reduce your speaking pace. Talk in a relaxed, unhurried manner. You can do this by adding pauses to your sentences. "Do you want (pause) an apple (pause) or a banana?" As you model this speaking behavior, the child will follow your example. Build in five minutes a day of one-on-one time, without distractions, to speak this way while reading a book, or building with Legos.

• Another strategy is to ask only one question at a time, followed by a pause. You need to give the child wait time. Use full listening, even though this is difficult in our busy world. Full listening includes direct eye contact and appropriate facial expressions that tell your child his message is more important to you than how he is speaking.

• Also helpful, especially if you have more than one child, is to take turns. You can verbally direct the conversation: "It's Ethan's turn to speak." Or you can use an object to pass along signifying who gets to speak. Be fair and make sure everyone gets the same time to be heard. The tendency is to give the child who stutters more opportunities than the others, which can create conflict in a family. Realize that normal rules apply with children who stutter. Discipline is important to teach appropriate behavior expectations. Children may increase their stuttering during anxious moments, but they need to be responsible for their choices as is the case with any other child.

If you recognize stuttering behaviors in your child and are concerned, there are professionals who are available to answer your questions or evaluate your child. Contact San Juan Regional's Pediatric Rehabilitation Outpatient Center at 505-609-6013 or contact your school district's exceptional programs office.

Aerial Liese has been an educator for more than 15 years. She has three children and is the author of four books. She is an educational doctorate student and teaches at San Juan College. Contact her at 505-258-1029 or go to