How to Help A Preschooler Who Begins to Stutter
Stuttering is not an uncommon occurrence in preschoolers. In fact, some researchers suggest that stuttering may occur during development in 5-11% of kids between the ages of 2.5 and 5 years old. We outlined some examples of stuttering in a previous blog post, which may help parents identify it.
Since then, we’ve received numerous questions from parents, asking what they can do to help their preschoolers manage this challenging developmental experience. It’s an important question to ask, because the longer a child stutters, the greater the probability of persistence. The good news is that the majority of kids who stutter during this developmental time-frame will recover within the first 12-18 months post-onset.
Stuttering can range from relatively mild to more severe and with a suddenness that can cause significant distress for both the child as well as the family. Our goal is to mitigate any potential negative emotions a child may experience as early as possible. If left unattended, those feelings can impact a child’s self-confidence and belief in self as a competent speaker. Self-confidence and stuttering become more closely intertwined the longer the stuttering persists, and ultimately, modeling tools that help a child speak more easily are much easier to learn than trying to change a child’s perception of herself. This is why early intervention, such as creating a fluency-enhancing environment at home, is key.
While we recommend reaching out to a speech-language pathologist to gain perspective on your child’s unique situation, we can offer some general guidelines that may help him at home.
Set aside 10 minutes to talk
A child who is stuttering may be competing for talk time in your home. It is important for these children to have your undivided attention at some point during the day. Set up one-on-one time daily, if possible, at which time the two of you can do something enjoyable and simply share the experience of communication. You could play a board game or build Legos. During this time, focus on the following:
1. Listening Actively
Active listening will not only help your children become better listeners, it will also suggest to them that what they say is important. Reflect back upon what they say to show that you’re listening.
2. Keeping good eye contact
Maintaining good eye contact with your child will help him feel like what he’s saying is meaningful. If you look away when he’s speaking, especially during a stutter event, you may inadvertently be communicating to your child that he’s doing something wrong or that it’s uncomfortable for you.
3. Acknowledging the difficulty, when appropriate
If your child is struggling significantly, it is important to acknowledge the difficulty by simply mentioning that you noticed how hard it was for her to speak. In a non-emotional, matter-of-fact way, following a particularly difficult talking event, you might simply say something like, “That seemed hard for you. Would you like some help?”
4. Rephrasing their words
When your child stutters, repeat the meaning of what she’s said back to her, but slowly, smoothly, and without the stuttering. “Yes, I agree, those Legos you built do look like a robot.”
5. Modeling good speaking habits
We often refer to Mr. Rogers when trying to explain what good speaking habits look like. Mr. Rogers had a very relaxed, easy-going style to his speaking. He spoke slowly and clearly and used many pauses throughout his utterances.
6. Avoiding interrupting or making suggestions
Interrupting your child or telling her to slow down or take deep breaths when she’s stuttering is not helpful. Interrupting can be disruptive for any speaker and can be particularly problematic for a child who is already having difficulty getting her words out. We want to help her avoid experiencing frustration as much as possible.
7. Normalizing it when appropriate
How a child thinks and feels about himself plays a large role in how he speaks. If he thinks that he’s not a good speaker, he may not want to speak as much. It will make him more nervous. Normalizing stuttering, especially when he is struggling, will help him feel better about himself and will give him the freedom and self-confidence to continue to talk. Say something like, “When I was your age, I sometimes had a hard time getting my words out too.”
8. Asking less demanding questions
Different types of questions require varying levels of language processing. Questions like, “Did you have a good day?” requires a less complex level of processing, whereas an open-ended question such as, “Tell me about your day yesterday” is going to require a higher level of processing and therefore, will put additional pressure on them.
If you are concerned about your child’s stuttering, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to a speech-language pathologist. He or she may be able to consult over the phone and give you some ideas before a face-to-face appointment is warranted.