In our last blog, Amy spoke about how to manage kids’ fears and anxiety. We see many kids who have fears and anxieties about speaking in school. In our office, we often talk about kids with both language and anxiety disorders. Are they anxious because their language deficits impact the way they can process the world around them, or is being anxious causing difficulties in communication? As a child, I struggled with this and sometimes still do. Having to give a presentation still leaves me sleepless. In my case, anxiety made it hard for me to get my ideas out clearly and competently. I also tended to think of answers impulsively and felt dumb when obvious ones weren’t correct. Below are some ways in which speech and language deficits can make kids anxious about speaking up in school.
Formulation/Executive Functioning/Word Retrieval: Kids with formulation deficits and weaknesses in organization may find it challenging to put their ideas in the correct sequence. Kids like this may take a long time to get the main crux of their point, or when retelling events may give lots of extra details out of order. This happens particularly when called on unexpectedly. These kids may also have difficulty finding the correct words. If a child is aware of this, they may be reticent to speak in class.
What can teachers do? One of the best ways to help a child struggling with organizing their ideas is to let them know the question you want them to answer ahead of time. This will allow for adequate processing time. Another suggestion I like to give to teachers is to provide a poster of sentence starters that kids can refer to, such as, “I think that…, I know this.” It can often be easier for students to complete a sentence than generate a novel one. Using visuals such as graphic organizers for longer responses can also be helpful.
Stuttering and Articulation: Kids who experience moments of stuttering may refrain from speaking at school or with peers. Some kids aren’t bothered by moments of stuttering and don’t let it impact their communication and socialization skills. These kids aren’t usually candidates for therapy or classroom supports. For others, stuttering may significantly limit class participation, reading aloud in class, and initiating with peers. Some kids may be scared to speak in school if they cannot say their speech sounds correctly. Many kids might be unintelligible in some instances and will refrain from speaking because their peers and teachers will often ask them to repeat themselves. Both stuttering and articulation may be a source of embarrassment for some kids.
What can teachers do? This will depend on the child, but most teachers I have worked with became conscious about when to call on children who experience stuttering moments and those with articulation errors. I suggest refraining from calling on students unexpectedly. Letting the child know what question you will ask them can help reduce pressure to speak. For stuttering, reducing the verbal competition in the room, such as using a talking stick, will lessen verbal competition in the classroom. Teachers should consult with the child’s SLP for fluency strategies specific for that child.
Selective Mutism: When working in the schools and even in private practice, I occasionally get calls…” my child doesn’t speak at school or in groups.” My first question is, “how about at home?” If a child demonstrates good language skills at home, can tell you everything about their day, and engages in conversations with those closest to them, then a speech pathologist is not the correct referral. Selective Mutism is considered an anxiety disorder and should be treated by a mental health professional. Of course, some kids with Selective Mutism also have concomitant speech and language deficits. Then the child should be seen by both an SLP and Psychologist. If your child or a child in your class is experiencing this, the school counselor is the best place to start.
By providing classroom supports and modifications, we can help children gain the confidence to become active participants in their learning.