If you are a parent to a toddler whose speech shows the signs of stuttering, I believe it's crucial to understand what's going on here and act accordingly.
Age between one and three, which is the toddler's age, is the period of the most active development of speech. Here a child goes from the first words to the sentences. That's when often stuttering begins.
If your kid occasionally repeats words like “the dog - the dog - the dog” or “she-she-she-she” and then goes on with the phrase, that is widely regarded as being OK at this age. This may happen because a toddler already knows what to say and rushes to say it, but the speaking mechanism is not yet ready to match it. There’s usually no problem with it as the child’s speaking toolkit develops and catches up a bit later.
But if your child repeats sounds, not words, especially the first consonants, like “sh-sh-sh-sh” and you can notice muscle tension getting it out, then these are the signs of development of a real or 'true' stuttering. It's much easier to prevent stuttering at this stage when speaking patterns are evolving, when they are pretty flexible than treat stuttering at a later stage when the patterns become highly automated.
Stuttering is an iceberg with speech impediments on top of it. Then a child becomes more and more conscious about the way he or she speaks and the way other people react to that. People who stutter develop fear of speech, tension thinking about speaking and this emotional background backs, supports stuttering, makes it so strong and brings negative emotions to a person who stutters.
So at this point, we don't have this pyramid, this iceberg. At this point, the impediments represent just some new experience for a kid. The kid is not so much concerned about it. It can still go either way. It’s not an automated speaking pattern yet. It’s just something a child is undergoing through.
Now, what can we do? It's not very efficient to teach or explain our child how to speak and try to affect the speech directly. What we really can do is to create a certain environment for a kid.
And some people would argue that stuttering is hereditary, and nothing can help here. I would say, yes, most people who stutter do have some heredity, some genetics, we’re predisposed on physical and emotional levels.
But I'm a strong believer that stuttering at this stage, at this point is like a weed seed. We can put it in the fertile soil and help it grow. Or we can put it in the sand and let it vanish. So our task is to create the conditions, the environment where stuttering won't develop.
Let's see what in particular we can do as parents.
There’s no point in trying to instruct a child, a toddler how to speak. No way, it doesn’t work. A child is like a sponge. The way to learn for a child is to emulate, repeat what others do. First of all, what parents do. But our adult speaking pace is usually way too fast for a toddler. And our speaking is pretty choppy as well.
A toddler wants to imitate that speed and that style. But a kid’s speaking mechanism is not yet as developed as ours. So the child runs into a problem trying to process a too large number of sounds in a short period of time.
What we can do to help our child is to speak in a smooth way. And make the first vowel sound in a word or sentence, whatever you want to say, longer, stronger and deeper than usual. It's like singing on the first vowel sound. And we also want to split our speech into short phrases.
So, first, it's about overall pattern of smooth speaking, and second, it’s about the smooth inflow into the phrase.
Here are several aspects:
- Don't expose your child to emotional roller coasters
- Build up confidence first
- Connect with your child
There's a lot of different activities and games that can help a kid really like and enjoy speaking. They also facilitate the development of speaking skills and make it fun and stress-free.
First of all, it's developing fine motor skills.
If you Google you’ll find many videos and articles on this subject. There are tons and tons of games and activities out there. From dough and beads to hanging socks.
Another thing is gross motor skills and physical activities
Again, just Google and you’ll find myriads of games and activities to develop gross motor skills of your kid for your inspiration.
I noticed that kids love most the games that you invent on the fly. Hiding an object in the room so that you still can see it and then looking for it, throwing a toy into a bin or basket, creating random sequences. Like I say, throw a ball and catch it, that’s 1, jump one step ahead, that’s 2 and then crawl between the chairs, that’s 3. Now you repeat it. My kids just loved creating crazy sequences for me. "You dad, go 3 steps ahead, then jump over a line here, then close your eyes and touch your nose with your finger, then throw this rabbit onto the chair, and then ten other things to do." And I’m asking my daughter, "Can you repeat anything of that yourself?"
The next thing is combining games and activities with speaking
Playing these games and doing these activities try to combine speaking with the motor activities.
For example, you're playing toy cubes with your toddler putting them one on the other. So you say, let's play food. I say pizza and put a cube. Now it's your turn, name your food and put your cube.
It can be jumping, clapping, throwing, catching and saying a word or phrase at the same time. There are so many ways how we can link them together.
To sum up all three tips together:
1: Smooth speaking pattern with smooth inflow into the phrase
2. Emotional confidence
3. Developing your kid’s speaking skills
Speech impediments is a very sensitive issue. No instructions, no criticizing, we don't want to focus on the fact that something is wrong. But at the same time, we want to actively create the environment of smooth speech and by games and activities ingrain confidence in our toddler.
And when I say environment it's not like some exercise you're doing with your kid. It's the way you want to speak now. Of course, you don't have to speak this way at work, but to set a speaking pattern you need to be real with your kid.
It's not a monotonous or robotic speaking, don't be afraid of that speech, you can still give all the intonations, shades, and colors that you want to give your speech. The more real you are with this speaking, the more you use it, the better chances are that your kid will be fine.
If you want to go deeper into the smooth inflow technique, I have the Improve program which is mostly about it. The program is not for parents; it’s an online video course for stuttering teens and adults, but I'm teaching there the same principle of easy, smooth inflow into the phrase. That's what we want to produce in our speech as parents. You can find the link to the program here.