Supporting students who stammer

Written by: Abed Ahmed | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Stammering can have an adverse effect on a student’s confidence and ability to thrive in school. Teacher Abed Ahmed gives us an insight into what it is like to live and teach with a stammer – and offers some advice for supporting students

The British Stammering Association says that eight per cent of people will have a stammer at some point in their lives. Action for Stammering Children, meanwhile, suggests that five per cent of children will stammer at some point and around one per cent continue to stammer into adulthood (stammering is also three to four times more common in boys than in girls).

This means it is highly likely that you will have pupils (and perhaps some staff) in your school who stammer, though they may hide it.

Some people who stammer, like myself, personally would not call it a disability. I have been struggling with my stammer since the age of four and only started to stammer more openly and confidently after the age of 19.

Of course, it has been a challenge. I have been bullied and have been called all sorts of names – from “machine gun” to “woodpecker”. You would think that this was only done by other pupils, but I have experienced bullying behaviour from adults too.

Being teased about my stammer at times made me feel annoyed towards myself, and that somehow I was at fault. My teachers and even my parents never seemed to quite understand my stammer. Why would they? Not many people really understand stammering.

The importance of support

My journey through secondary school was not as bad as it could have been. I was lucky enough to have a supportive network of friends coupled with the confidence I was able to develop while studying GCSE drama at school (a very useful support when it comes to stammering).

However, not once did my friends, family or school ask me about it. Nor did I ever bring it up, because I was too embarrassed. It was when I was in the 6th form (an age where you become even more self-conscious) that I finally decided to seek help from the NHS. It was the first time I was able to open up to someone about my stammer.

The therapy helped me realise that the quicker you accept your stammer, the quicker you can move on. And that is exactly what I did, I stopped caring about what people thought and, as soon as I did that, I stopped thinking about my stammer.

However, this is not as simple as it sounds. We are all different and each person who stammers will get there in their own time. It is crucial that you do not force people who stammer to rush this journey to acceptance.
Aged 21, I completed my degree and became a secondary school maths teacher. I always knew that teaching was the job for me, even though it requires you to speak for 99 per cent of the time!

I was once told by an ex-teacher at a teaching conference that I should consider another career because I would struggle with my stammer. Yet I persevered and became a lead in teaching and learning in my maths department.

I was equally thrilled to be honoured at the Shine a Light Awards 2019 in the Communication Champion of the Year category for my work in supporting young people who stammer.

Stammering does not have to be a negative

I decided to set up my own stammer support sessions in school, with groups of stammering pupils aged between 11 and 18. I currently work with 13 pupils and have been focusing on improving their confidence and helping them to achieve a greater degree of fluency in their speech.

Sessions have included drama and theatrical role play, interview practice and tips, and advice on how to approach people. Overall I hope I act as a general supporting figure to give these students a voice and some empathy with their struggles.

Some top tips...

So, as a teacher and as someone who grew up with a stammer, what do I advise other teachers to do to support students who stammer?

  • As a general rule, treat a pupil who stammers the same way as you treat pupils who do not. We do not like to be treated differently.
  • Never finish their sentences. Always listen to what they have to say and not the way they are saying it.
  • Being patient is important. The more anxious we feel, the more likely we will stammer even more. It can be tempting to say things like “spit it out”, but that is the worst thing you can say to a person who stammers.
  • Do not tell them to breathe slowly or to take their time – it just makes us feel that we are not capable of speaking for ourselves.
  • Show them that you are always listening. Ensure you keep natural eye contact at all times. We like to know that we are being listened to.
  • It may sound obvious, but make a point of asking stammerers what you can do as a teacher to support them.
  • Try speaking to the pupil more often, even if it is before lessons or in the canteen. Every bit of conversation will help. This will hopefully encourage them to speak more and to feel more comfortable speaking, which is what we want.
  • Always encourage them to take part in speaking activities – but you should certainly ask them beforehand so you know what they are comfortable with.
  • Encourage them. Having a stammer does not need to stop them from achieving. I did not let my stammer stop me from being a teacher and if I can do it, then so can other children and young people.
  • All my pupils receive additional support from a speech and language therapist. If you are in doubt, speak to your SENCO or your local speech and language therapy team for more assistance.


Conclusion

My stammer has defined me. What may surprise you, though, is that I think its impact has been, on the whole, positive. Despite the challenges, I believe I am a better teacher because of my stammer.
Way back when, my therapist taught me that the quicker you accept your stammer, the better things will get. She was right.

  • Abed Ahmed is a maths teacher and lead practitioner at Washwood Heath Academy in Birmingham. He was highly commended in the Communication Champion of the Year Award category at the 2019 Shine a Light Awards.

Further information & resources


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