Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Mollie Davis
According to The Stuttering Association For The Young (SAY), over 70 million people across the world stutter. Stuttering is an often-misunderstood speech disorder that can lead to people who stutter feeling anxious and shameful about the way they speak. But while life with a stutter is difficult, but that burden can be lightened when people who stutter have educators in their corner as advocates and allies. As a young child speaking in a class filled me with dread, as a sophomore in college I am proud to say that I am an avid public speaker, enjoy participating in class, and no longer find myself holding back out of fear that people with react negatively to how I speak. It is my hope that young people who stutter find that fearlessness sooner in their lives rather than later, which led me to compile this list of five things educators can do to foster confidence in their students who stutter.
Please, Please, Don’t Speak for Us
One of the most frustrating things I deal with as a person who stutters is people speaking for me. This happens most often when I’m halfway through a sentence, struggling on one certain word or phrase, and the person I’m talking to interrupts to say what they think I’m trying to get at. Not only is their guess often completely wrong, but this is also frustrating in that it has a way of making me feel like I’m not capable of speaking for myself. Especially in educational settings, working up the courage to contribute something to the conversation is hard enough. And finding that courage only to be cut off and talked over makes students feel like maybe speaking up in class isn’t worth the effort. Instead of speaking for us, give us the space to work through our speaking disfluencies independently. After all, if you’re trying to teach someone to drive, they don’t learn much if you never let them get behind the wheel themselves.
Don’t Assume How Much We Want to Participate, Ask!
While as a college student I jump at the opportunity to speak in class, I wasn’t always this confident. As a middle schooler being randomly selected to read in class would have resulted in me breaking out in a panic-driven sweat. While I knew that it meant that my teacher didn’t see me as different from my peers, I just wasn’t in a place where I felt comfortable reading out loud in class. The best way to know how we want to participate in class? Ask! Everyone who stutters is different and while one student may feel relieved to not be called on, a different one might take not being called on as their teacher thinking that asking them to speak would be waste of time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to self-advocate for my classroom needs. But educators taking the initiative to ask and start the conversation is a great way from them to establish themselves as an ally to students who stutter from the get-go.
See Something, Say Something
Living as a person who stutters trains you to pick up on every little reaction. When I was younger, the biggest factor that kept me from raising my hand in class was how my peers would sometimes behave while I was speaking. From impatient sighs to funny looks and whispered comments and giggles, I noticed it all. Educators noticing those behaviors and combatting them with affirmative body language like consistent eye contact, and affirming words, can go a long way in making students who stutter feel like welcome contributors to classroom discussions.
But Don’t Offer Unsolicited Advice
While affirmations can make a world of difference in the life of a student who stutters “slow down”, “just breathe”, and “try again” are all examples of what not to say. These are all phrases that, more often than not, people who stutter are hearing on a constant basis from people who are frustrated with the way we talk. Unsolicited advice hurts and infantizes people who stutter more than it helps us. Instead try “thank you for sharing,” or simply acknowledging that we were listened to by building off of what we said without bringing up how we struggled to say it.
Remember That There Is No Link Between Stuttering and Intelligence
There is no science or research linking stuttering to intelligence, which means one of the most important parts of being an ally to people who stutter in the classroom is remembering that we are just as capable as our fluently speaking peers. Stuttering when we talk does not impact one’s literacy, writing, math, or science abilities. People who stutter have gone on to succeed in every career imaginable, from lawyers, to doctors, to teachers. Educators play a pivotal rule in setting students who stutter up for success by focusing on their capabilities, not their impediments.
Mollie Davis is a person who stutters, a freelance writer, and a sophomore at Hollins University studying theatre and political science. Follow her on Twitter at @davism0llie.