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Address the gatekeepers: unblocking the pathway to learning

Dr Clare Butler | 01.07.2013

Dr Clare Butler from Newcastle University details findings from her study into educational experiences of people who stammer.

Dr Clare Butler‘Tell me the story of your stammer’ was the simple question I asked participants in my recent research. This open question allowed respondents the freedom to start their story at any point they wished and use whichever frame suited their experiences. There were thirty-eight participants in my study: 80% were men aged from 19 to 89. I noted that participants commonly situated their stories within the school environment - speaking in ways which made clear their experiences at school continued to be influential on their lives. As a result, this context was the focus of an article published in the International Journal of Educational Research, and its themes are summarised here.

We often read that schooldays are the best days of your life. In this research however, participants’ stories were underpinned by one consistent message: “School was a sodding nightmare - an absolute sodding nightmare.”

This message will now be set in context drawing on representative themes from fully anonymised stories. Several participants reported difficulty in fitting in with other children at school - however, this was not always the case. A number of the women described having strong and close friendships at school and the men spoke of making good, often life-long, friends while playing sports before and after school. Moving onto the family, participants spoke of their being supportive but largely ill-equipped: “My mother didn’t have a clue how to handle it at all [his having a stammer]...although I don’t know what she could have done, or my dad. I mean, what can anyone do?” Although the conversations around friends and family varied, participants habitually commented that their stammer was not talked about. This led to little or, more commonly, no discussion of the impact of their stammer on their educational experience.

The impact of teachers

When describing the events or circumstances that made their schooldays most difficult, “teachers” was the resounding response. Participants’ stories had a recurring theme: the refusal of teachers to make allowances for their stammer. Specifically, participants reported that teachers often asked them to read aloud or to respond to questions in class - despite being asked not to. This resulted in constant anxiety: “It wasn’t so much being asked to do it [read aloud or speak], it was about spending every bloody day worrying that you would be asked.” The impact of the fear of speaking meant that many participants excluded themselves from the educational environment - physically, emotionally or cognitively. One recalls, “I spent the whole time in school trying to avoid speaking - meant I learnt nothing.” Another respondent noted little change in this regard, remarking that a relative had recently visited his son’s school for this same reason and was told that “no concessions would be made because we treat all the children the same.”

Newcastle UniversityAdditionally, a number of participants described being moved in the classroom, often to the back, where they felt they were outside of their ‘natural’ place in the class and positioned with their more disruptive peers. Participants acknowledged, however, that the teacher was all too often “between a rock and a hard place” when managing their level of involvement and participation in the classroom. One participant reflected on the impact of this reduced interaction, noting his lack of understanding of the “political give and take, the negotiation of working together...I never got a chance to learn that and it’s so important.” Others described missing out on opportunities to develop skills in persuasion, debating and teamwork.  

Yet, teachers were not always cast in a negative light. They were also the source of inspiration, as this edited extract highlights: “We had a new science teacher part way through comp [comprehensive school]...[he] was amazing, the best ever. He knew I had a stammer and called me back at the end of one of his first lessons - he asked me what help I was getting. I said nothing. He asked me what I needed him to do for me. I mean I was so shocked I don’t think I said anything in particular. But then, because I didn’t answer, he asked me to think about it, come back the next day and to make a list so we could discuss it. It was amazing...it um...it makes me...quite...um...emotional to think about it now. I was what, fourteen and he was the first teacher to talk to me about my stammer...he told me to make sure I got my message across in whatever way I needed to. I remember him saying that I had as much right to an education as anyone else but that I had to make sure I got it. I guess he moved half way, made me do my bit too...an amazing guy.”   

Messages

In summarising, there are three main messages from this research. First, when participants describe their experiences of school, the words ‘tension’ and ‘worry’ frequently appear. This is often related directly to their concern of being called upon to speak in class, and this anxiety overrode their ability to engage with their learning. The refusal of teachers to respond to their requests for support was reported by all but one participant, resulting in anger or upset.

Second, participants spoke in ways which suggested they felt excluded from a range of classroom experiences - educational and social. Social exclusion results from people being barred from the usual exchanges, practices and rights of society, and can impact on individuals in a number of ways. Participants spoke of a reduced interaction with the teacher, which limited their education and ability to acquire general life and workplace skills. Alongside this, many referred to an inability to negotiate their place within the classroom hierarchy. This was suggested to impair participants’ ability to develop political and negotiation skills. Furthermore, a number of respondents referred to limited interaction with peers during group activities, impacting on their ability to develop a shared identity and team-working skills. Finally, the combination of the above had a detrimental impact on participants’ self-esteem and self confidence – this, in turn, reduced their aspirations.  

Third, and arguably leading on from the aforementioned point, participants stated that they often lacked the qualifications to gain a place at university. Of the thirty-eight participants in my study, only five progressed onto higher education. Those who did attend university often experienced many of the same challenges, where, just like at school, their stammer was not discussed: “What could they have done anyway? With dyslexia, someone can take notes or you can get extra time in the exams, but with a stammer - I’m not saying it’s worse than other things but I just don’t see what the university could have done. I just kept my head down, got by, got a degree, and got out.” In addition, group work is vital to the student experience and, of course, necessary for the workplace. One participant spoke of finding the collaborative aspect of his university course particularly challenging, something that continues to present him with difficulties. When considered alongside other participants’ comments of their school experiences impairing their ability to develop the skills required for effective collaboration, this may shed some light on his difficulty.

Conclusion

Following this research, I would like to: a) suggest, or maybe more correctly, add support to, prior advice to parents of children who stammer, and b) advocate a number of changes to educational policy. Firstly, in support of prior advice, beware of the tactic of silence; maintain a dialogue with the school, the Speech and Language Therapist and the child. Secondly, I would call for a change to education policy, both in schools and universities. The BSA is currently seeking to advance a project to create a ‘communication passport’ for children who stammer, which would detail their specific communication abilities, challenges and needs. This passport follows the child through school, being adapted as necessary, and helps with the transition between classes and particularly between schools (often a challenging time). If this were to be implemented into school policy and practice, then a summary could be considered alongside other documentation for entrance into university and would indicate the additional challenges the student has experienced on their journey through the education system. This would require a policy change but would support the growing agenda of widening participation in higher education.

To conclude, this research calls for an integrated approach between child, parents or guardians, teachers, therapists, schools and universities to unblock the pathway to learning for people who stammer. Increased communication, along with the recommended policy change in schools and universities, would help to develop an inclusive and responsive learning environment, offering people who stammer the chance to engage in the exchanges that are vital for personal, social and economic wellbeing.

Dr Clare Butler is Lecturer in Work and Employment at the Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle University. Email her at clare.butler@newcastle.ac.uk.


In response, BSA Education Officer Cherry Hughes writes:

I read the research with great interest and considerable sadness. However, given the age range of participants – 19-89 years – many of these negative educational experiences were some time in the past. Nowadays, I do hope that the situation has improved as a result of BSA’s work and the increased profile of stammering in education as part of the outcome of The Bercow Report and our partnership with The Communication Trust.

Our resources for education staff, at www.stammeringineducation.net, and for parents, at www.stammeringineducation.net/expertparent, have been well received and are used by therapists for work with teachers and parents, and by schools in their professional training, so hopefully our children today are better supported and are more likely to achieve their potential. When things do go wrong, as regrettably still occurs, parents and students are much more ready nowadays to raise concerns, often drawing on BSA support.

The study highlights that there’s no room for complacency, but hopefully today no child needs to suffer as did those described in the research. Support from BSA is always available and we work continually to make things better for the stammering community.

From Speaking Out Summer 2013, p.20-21`