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How to help a stutterer


Your preschool child has long since experienced that major milestone of spouting first words. As a toddler, simple sentences began to form as new words were added to the vocabulary. But what happens if you start to notice that your preschooler is experiencing difficulty getting some of the words out? Your child could be faced with a normal part of language development or may have a larger problem with language fluency.

One percent of the total population stutters, says Robert Kroll, executive director of the Speech and Stuttering Institute in Toronto. “When we talk about preschool children, however, the chances that those children will be disfluent, at some point in their development, goes up to four or five percent,” says Robert. New research published in the journal Pediatrics puts that number for preschoolers a bit higher. Those researchers found that as many as 11 percent of children up to the age of four experienced some form of stuttering. 

Up to 75 percent of preschoolers who stutter, though, will “outgrow the stuttering problem or develop normal fluency patterns,” says Robert. Even so, there is still a certain percentage of children who are at risk, so parents shouldn’t assume that their child is just experiencing some bumps in their normal language development.

“The most important thing a parent can do is contact a speech language pathologist who is highly experienced in the area of stuttering,” says Deryk Beal, PhD, executive director of the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research at the University of Alberta.

The speech language pathologist will interview the parents and perform an assessment on the child to determine if the child is indeed stuttering and the severity of the stutter, as well as plan any future intervention or therapy. 

If the speech language pathologist determines that treatment is necessary for your preschooler, Robert says there are several approaches the therapist can take. 

One approach works indirectly with the child through parent counselling by teaching parents how to communicate with their child who is stuttering.

In another approach, parents “reinforce the child for good talking on a five-to-one ratio, so five reinforcements before you do any kind of correction.” 

Finally, with older preschoolers, Robert says the speech language pathologist can begin to teach the child fluency skills. These include: pausing before talking, taking proper breaths at the proper boundaries, and putting the voice on gently, techniques that teenagers and adults who stutter use to moderate their speaking. All three of these approaches are quite nuanced, which is why working with a speech language pathologist who specializes in stuttering is important.

As a society, we still have a distance to go to debunk the myths that come along with stuttering – that a person who stutters is insecure, has lower intelligence, or is lying. If your child is still stuttering even with treatment, the best thing parents can do, says Deryk, is address stuttering head on and talk with their families, daycare providers, school teachers, and the child’s friends about how to be supportive.

Listen for the Signs

Deryk Beal, executive director of the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says that children who stutter will often begin between two-and-a-half and four years old. Deryk says to look out for these speech abnormalities.

  • Syllable or word repetitions. The sentence: “Did you see that?“ might become: “Did did did did you see that?” where the child repeats a syllable or a single word over and over again.
  • Prolonged sounds. In that same example sentence, the child might say, “Diiiiiiiiid you see that?” stretching out a sound for longer than normal.
  • Pauses. Occasionally, you will see complete stoppages or blocks of airflow, where no sound comes out at all. So if there was a block on the first sound, you might hear some struggle behaviour behind it, sounding like, “pause … did you see that?”


How you can help your child

  • Be patient. Don‘t interrupt or try to finish words and sentences. Give your child time to get the thoughts out.
  • Have distraction-free conversations. Sit down with your child in a quiet space and talk about your day. Speak slowly and clearly.
  • Don‘t pile on the pressure. Asking your child to “Slow down, think before you speak, take a deep breath“ may actually increase speech anxiety. Not every sentence has to be a lesson.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.


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