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BBC's 'The Kid's Speech' - Has stammering therapy moved on?

Gordon McConnell | 01.12.2011

In October 2011 the BBC broadcast a documentary following three children on a course at the Michael Palin Centre (MPC) called 'The Kid's Speech'. Viewer Gordon McConnell was disappointed with what he saw.

It was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch 'The Kid's Speech'. Having stammered myself for 55 years I have had little success with various therapies, especially in my childhood. So I was looking forward to seeing what new ideas children who stammer were being treated with. I was very disappointed indeed.

The three children featured attended the Michael Palin Centre for a 2-week period – it appeared that their treatment was what I received over 30 years ago! This made me wonder if speech therapy has moved on at all since then. It's not the answer to teach children to speak slower, which seemed to be what they were being taught here. Most of us who stammer have been taught this over the years and for the vast majority it doesn't work.

Those of us who have been on intensive courses know they only possibly help you in that time of therapy, for the speech soon breaks down without a refresher course. It would be very doubtful if the childrens' speech would hold up when they went back into their normal lives, as they would just revert to their old stammering habits. So what can be done to help children? Maybe therapy should look at the whole person - the emotional, physical, mental, social and physiological aspects of stammering.

One of the programme's few good points was the involvement of the parents in the child's therapy, which wouldn't have happened in my day. This needs to be encouraged and developed so that parents can be a help and a beneficial aid to the child at home. Michael Palin said we must speak to children, rather than think it's better not to for their sakes. This is really important as even now I experience this with adults not speaking to me because they know I stammer.

At least the programme brought stammering into the public arena - the more we can do this the better chance we have of it being highlighted on a national level. Hopefully in the future there'll be something really effective to help children who stammer. I'm sure there are people like me who have battled against it all their lives, and whose hearts go out to them. They need our help and support. It's our duty not to let them down.

MPC's response

We decided to ask the Michael Palin Centre for a reaction to Gordon's question of whether or not speech therapy has moved on. Specialist speech and language therapist Gemma Clarke gave us this response:

"The Michael Palin Centre runs year-long intensive group therapy programmes for 10-14 year olds and their parents. It starts with a 2-week course with the children and parents in separate groups. There are 3 strands to the programme and they combine to build a solid foundation of increased fluency and confidence and improved communication skills. The aim of the course is to equip the children and their families with tools to manage their journey ahead and to increase their participation in everyday life.

The fluency management aspect of the course is based on the 'Camperdown Programme' (developed in Australia). Clients learn a slow speech technique by copying a video of a speech model which is so slow that it makes stammering almost impossible. This resembles the 'prolonged speech' method from the past but the difference is how the children use the technique. Once they have mastered the basic skill by matching the model exactly, they can use as much or as little of the technique as they want or need to, to maintain fluency.

The children use video cameras to monitor their speech and to decide how acceptable the speech would be for them in 'real life'. One boy described the long, slow way of talking as the 'glue' that was holding his speech together. As he got more familiar with the technique he was able to use less and less of the 'glue' but still enough to be as fluent as he wanted to be. Using this method of learning encourages the children to take responsibility for practising fluency and monitoring their own speech with the instant video feedback.

Exploring negative thoughts

Confidence-building and developing thinking skills are an integral part of the course. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Solution Focused Brief Therapy underpin the activities in the group. Children set their own goals by imagining their best hopes such as: 'I will be more fluent', 'I will talk more', or 'I'll do more stuff'. They are then invited to notice these things, so by day two they can already notice progress. For one boy it was talking a bit more to his teammates at football practice. The children are also taught to identify their negative thoughts about speaking and explore if they are helpful or if they actually make them feel worse. We leave the safety of the clinic room to experiment and test out how accurate the thoughts are. For example to investigate the worry: 'If I stammer people will laugh', we go to the local market and the children watch the therapists stammering to strangers so that the children can observe their reactions.

What helps build the children's confidence? From day one the children talk to each other and make friends. They also have a go at talking in front of the group, putting up their hands in front of new people and offering their ideas. When asked to think about what builds confidence, the children tell us: 'Being with people who understand', 'Doing things even though they are scary' and 'Practising things until you know you can do them easily.'

All the children set themselves communication targets throughout the group. Targets range from smiling, to talking more, to being concise. Ideas about what to work on are generated from brainstorms, for example 'What makes a good communicator', and from watching videos of themselves debating a problem (what three items would you want if stuck on a desert island?) Parents and children start to report more smiling and more successful interactions at home during the first week.

The parents follow the same programme as their children and they say that this helps them to understand stammering more and they feel more able to support their children. Discussions about praise and confidence-building empower them to 'step back' and give space for their children to develop their confidence and independence.

The course is not always comfortable - tears are shed and comfort zones are stretched. But the rewards are great. Signs of change that people have shared include:

'We've got our son back',

'I'm more fluent when I talk to my teacher', and even:

'I ordered lunch by myself and the man gave me a sausage for free!'"

From the Winter 2011/12 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 27-28