Health

The Challenges of Remote Learning for Children Who Stutter

Like all of the students at her Bronx high school, Kaitlyn Tineo had to contend with the social awkwardness and technology glitches that were common during the early days of remote learning. But Kaitlyn, a 15-year-old sophomore, had a compounding challenge: She stutters.

On the first day of school, she emailed five of her teachers. “It takes a bit for me to say what I want to say,” she wrote, “so please have some patience with me.”

Kaitlyn was concerned that, during video classes, the teachers might cut her off, finish her sentences or confuse her stutter with a spotty Wi-Fi connection. And she’s learned that when she’s upfront about her stutter, she’s more comfortable participating in school.

Among the many challenges of remote learning, children who stutter say that having to speak on a video screen can be especially intimidating. And online, it’s easy for kids to turn off their cameras and not raise their hands, said Jennifer Polley, whose 12-year-old son attends a public middle school in Fairfax, Va., and has been nervous about stuttering in front of his classmates.

Stuttering affects about 1 percent of the world’s population and more than 3 million Americans, according to the National Stuttering Association. It is thought to stem from a combination of genetic factors and differences in the brain networks involving speech production and hearing.

People who stutter vary in how open they are about it, said Vivian Sisskin, a clinical professor in the department of hearing and speech sciences at the University of Maryland. On one side is Kaitlyn, who speaks openly about her disfluency. Five years ago, she gave a presentation to her fifth grade classmates about stuttering. “We’re just like you,” she told them that day. “The only difference is we take longer to say our words.”

Kaitlyn’s self-advocacy is an example of a wider movement toward stuttering acceptance, Professor Sisskin said. “It’s aimed at stuttering with less struggle, even stuttering pride, and less focused on fixing, curing or suppressing stuttering. The idea is that it’s OK to stutter.”

At the other extreme are covert stutterers, people who go to lengths to conceal their stutter by avoiding speaking situations. Often, they succeed at hiding it, but at a cost, Professor Sisskin said. They spend much of their day worrying about it, which, “for many, can be exhausting.”

The goal, she said, should be to help these students find ways to participate in learning so they find joy in communication. And the good news is that virtual school can lend itself to different learning styles. Here are some suggestions on how to help young people who stutter.

The effort and anxiety of trying to hide a stutter is worse for most people than being disfluent, said Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Because of this, speech-language pathologists work closely with students on ways to disclose their stutter so that they feel comfortable talking — and stuttering — in class.

How students disclose will vary according to age, comfort level and individual choice, Dr. Paul said. In the remote learning environment, they might choose to do it via email, like Kaitlyn, or on a chat screen. Some students coordinate with their teachers to plan a time to tell their classmates. Others might wait until a moment of stuttering, or even intentionally stutter, Dr. Paul said, and then say something like: “Sometimes I repeat sounds. That’s called stuttering. Just wanted you all to know. We’ve all got something.”

Professor Sisskin encourages her patients to lean on humor. For example: “We were given five minutes to prepare this book report. I prepared three minutes because I knew I was going to stutter.” Or, “No … my Wi-Fi isn’t breaking up; that’s me stuttering.”

Interjecting humor has two purposes, she said. It reduces the desire to hide the stutter because you’ve already put it out there, and it lets others know that you’re open about it and not ashamed.

If students prefer not to speak publicly, they should work with their teachers to find alternative ways to participate and connect with other students, Professor Sisskin said. For example, they could share their vast knowledge of Minecraft in a breakout room or show their humor in a chat.

A simple video assignment worked well for Ms. Polley’s son, Danny. Students were asked to record short videos of themselves discussing a favorite book or vacation. It was out of Danny’s comfort zone, but just a little bit, she said, and the subject matter, combined with the option to pre-record, struck a sweet spot.

“He could record it multiple times if he needed to. And the topic was himself, so he knew the material well.”

For teachers and classmates of children who stutter, Travis Robertson, director of Camp SAY, a summer camp for young people who stutter, has this advice: After asking a question, wait at least seven seconds for an answer, and don’t be afraid of the silence or space in the conversation. It can take time for students to formulate a thought, gather themselves and respond, said Mr. Robertson, who is also vice president of programming for SAY, the Stuttering Association for the Young. Let them know you’re engaged and interested in what they’re saying.

“People often say, ‘Calm down, and breathe, and think about what you want to say,’” Kaitlyn said. “That doesn’t help. I can’t control my stutter. I can’t just breathe and make it go away. Have some patience with me, and just let me say it.”

But the best learning — and the best advocacy — comes not from a teacher or a speech therapist, Professor Sisskin said, but from others who stutter. Consider 13-year-old Brayden Harrington.

During the Democratic National Convention in August, millions watched as Brayden addressed a national audience from his bedroom, talking about how it had helped him to have the support of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who, like him, stuttered as a child.

Just 17 seconds in, while saying the words “we stutter,” he began to do just that. He stuttered multiple times during the speech. He also looked directly into the camera and smiled. He seemed confident and relaxed.

Brayden said in an interview that strategies he’s learned from speech therapy combined with a lot of talking have helped him build the courage to speak publicly.

“You have to talk a lot to really adapt to it,” he said. “And to mentally feel what’s going on, and then just sort of accept it.”

Mr. Robertson, who stutters himself, called Brayden’s moment on national television “monumental” for the stuttering community.

“It’s so incredibly refreshing and radical to be out stuttering openly and publicly,” he said. “And that’s what Brayden did. In arguably the largest stage in the world right now, he allowed himself to stutter.”

For Brayden, the biggest payoff has been what’s happened since, he said. Before meeting Mr. Biden, he said he had never spoken with another person who stutters. And after his convention speech, virtual support groups he hadn’t known existed, like SAY, the National Stuttering Association and Friends: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter reached out, wanting to meet him. A virtual back-to-school meeting with one of these groups marked the first time he’d ever heard another young person stutter back to him.

These video discussions have done something life changing, he said: They’ve made him feel less alone.

“It’s made me more confident,” Brayden said. “And it’s helped me because I’ve found that I’m not the only kid in the world. There are other kids who stutter.”


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