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Stammering children are still bullied

Allan Tyrer | 04.12.2009

Research by Dr Steve Davis OBE and his colleagues at UCL has found that even now children who stammer are less popular and more prone to bullying than their classmates.

Steve Davis is part of the Speech Team at UCL, and talked at the 2009 BSA conference about some of their research on children who stammer (CWS). This included research on whether CWS are more likely to be bullied, and whether bullying exacerbates stammering.

The team's hypothesis was that children who stammer are not nowadays more likely to be bullied - for example, bullying is now a much higher profile issue, and schools in England are required to have policies in place to tackle it.

The researchers visited 32 schools, talking to classes in which there was a child who stammers. Each child in the class was interviewed separately, being told that it was a 'friendship study' without any mention of stammering. Each child went through the class register saying which other children they liked, did not like, or did not know whether like or dislike - and also putting each of the other children into 7 behavioural categories.

The study found that CWS were twice as likely to be rejected/not liked; 43.5% of CWS were rejected compared with about 20% of their peers. CWS were also less likely to be popular.

Another finding was that CWS tend to move towards the class norm, to adopt the prominent social profile. For example, if a class was disruptive then CWS would tend to adopt that, perhaps because they do not want to stand out.

Looking at the behavioural categories, CWS were half as likely as others to be nominated as 'leaders'. These were people who were seen as good at organising, who you'd like to be in charge of your group in class, who the teacher often nominates to be in charge. CWS were also often nominated as 'victims' (which included cyberbullying), and as 'uncertain', which included for example people who asked for help more often.

There was no relation between stammering severity (nor persistent versus recovering groups) and the scores.

Steve stressed that these are only snapshots of the classes at a particular point in time and friendships can change quickly, though he would expect that the sample size balances this out.

The Speech Team are now starting a study to follow up suggestions they heard anecdotally. It sounded, from children they spoke to, as if there is a different perception of CWS in class versus in the playground - that in class they were often seen as valued members of the class, co-operative, helpful, but in the less structured area out of the classroom they seemed more prone to bullying, isolation and rejection.

Self-esteem

Steve also talked about research on self-esteem and anxiety. Previous research had shown that CWS report themselves as no different from their peers with regard to self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, however, adults who stammer tend to see themselves as having lower self-esteem than their peers, and to report feelings of anxiety, helplessness etc.

The UCL team had done a study testing self-esteem of CWS both in particular situations (state self-esteem) and generally (trait self-esteem). They found no significant differences compared with children who did not stammer - but the CWS did rate themselves higher on scholastic competence. For 16-18 year olds, however, the self-worth ratings began to fall, mirroring existing research on adults. This was still very much work in progress, and not yet published.

Anxiety research

Steve said there is conflicting research on whether or not people who stammer are more anxious. He was particularly impressed with a New Zealand study which found no difference in anxiety in 3-4 year olds very close to when they started to stammer.

The UCL team did a study in which they asked 12-18 year olds to imagine themselves in four different communication situations: asking for something in a shop, talking on the telephone, talking to a friend, and asking a question in class. The team found that groups with persistent stammering were significantly more anxious than recovering groups in 3 out of the 4 situations (state anxiety). The exception was talking to a friend. However, there was no significant difference in trait (i.e. general) anxiety.

Steve said it seems unlikely from his and other research that anxiety is a causal factor in stammering. However, it may be useful to look at measures of anxiety as way of tracking recovery.

The UCL Speech Team

The aim of Steve and his colleagues at UCL is to find what information may help speech therapists in predicting which children will recover from stammering in their school years. The team has a cohort of CWS, who it first saw at about 6-8 yrs old. Because of the team's 10 year funding it can follow them through to late adolescence. It looks at a wide range of factors and combines various expertise - for example, brain imaging, linguistics, and bilingualism. The ultimate aim is to have a model available to therapists indicating which factors are important in predicting recovery.

Research papers are on the UCL Speech Team's website at www.speech.psychol.ucl.ac.uk

Extended version of an article in the Winter 2009 edition of Speaking Out, page 7.