Stuttering: the elephant in the classroom

25 September 2013

Stuttering is going undiagnosed in Australian classrooms, causing a raft of lifelong social anxiety problems, warns a world-leading University of Sydney expert.

Professor Mark Onslow, Foundation Director of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre at the University of Sydney, believes that while primary school teachers are perfectly positioned to change the lives of children who stutter, few are equipped to manage the disorder.

He estimates that as many as one child in every large Australian primary school classroom could stutter but be unnoticed by teachers. Left untreated, stuttering can cause devastating social anxieties, which can lay the groundwork for underachievement at school and reduced employment outcomes later in life.

The cause of stuttering, which affects up to one in every nine children during the pre-school years, remains a mystery to scientists. Normally appearing in children before school age, it appears to stem from an issue with neural speech processing.

"Teachers can make the world of difference to the lives of children who stutter," says Professor Onslow, who is considered a world authority on stuttering.

"A good teacher can turn the school years from a daily ordeal to a positive learning environment for primary school children who stutter. They can turn children's lives around.

"If teachers do not help children who stutter, primary school can be a place where these children can develop and sustain debilitating social anxiety, which sows the seed for underachievement at school and in the world of work later in life."

In order to combat a lack of awareness among primary school teachers, the University this week hosted a public forum to coincide with International Stuttering Awareness Day on Monday 23 September. The workshop was co-hosted by the Australian Speak Easy Association and the University's Faculty of Education and Social Work.

"Children who stutter in primary school often go unnoticed. They become so anxious that they sit in class and don't say anything, and effectively disappear," says Professor Onslow.

"If you ask teachers to reflect on their careers they rarely remember many students who stuttered, but statistically we know they must have been in their classes, avoiding speaking as much as possible, and suffering daily anxiety."

Traditionally, stuttering was treated in school by forcing children who stuttered to stand and talk in front of the class. In reality, Professor Onslow says, if teachers do this the problem becomes exponentially worse.

Effective methods for teachers to manage stuttering may include talking privately with the student, listening patiently while they talk, not interrupting them or finishing their sentences, consulting with their parents and checking for signs of teasing or bullying.

Parents who are worried about their children stuttering should seek help immediately from a speech pathologist.

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