Building Resilience in Children Who Stammer – Sarah Caughter

About the Author:

Sarah Caughter, Michael Palin Centre for Stammering  Highly Specialist Speech and Language Therapist MSc., MRCSLT, Reg. HCPC.

Sarah qualified from Newcastle University, UK in 2004 and worked in early years and mainstream school settings until joining the Michael Palin Centre in London in 2009. Sarah completed an MSc in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with children and young people at the Anna Freud Centre, London, in 2015. She worked as a clinical tutor on the same program in 2016.

Sarah completed an intensive train the trainers’ course in Canada in 2016: ‘Reaching In Reaching Out’: a program designed to support professionals working with young children, to build their own resilience, as well as nurture these skills in children. She currently teaches this program to healthcare professionals in the UK. She has a particular interest in supporting children and young people who stammer who have mental health difficulties and in building resilience. She has recently published two peer-reviewed journal articles on resilience in children who stammer.

Resilience can be described as our ability to cope with and ‘bounce back’ from life’s challenges. This is particularly pertinent in light of the current global pandemic. Resilience is an important skill in helping us move through such challenges. So why is resilience important for children who stammer specifically?

The research tells us that children who stammer can develop negative attitudes towards their speech from an early age. Some children can experience teasing and bullying because of their stammer. In addition to the everyday challenges all children face, it may therefore be that children who stammer experience more and frequent difficulties. This may have an impact on their confidence, emotional wellbeing, and the way they participate socially, as well as their fluency.   

We know that caring relationships and positive role models in everyday interactions can foster resilience development in children. Adults can support children to develop accurate and flexible thinking patterns that help them cope with inevitable challenges. 

Children can develop resiliency skills which can help them to ‘bounce back’ in the face of difficulty. These important skills include the ability to:

  • return to a calm state in a stressful situation;
  • express their emotions;
  • identify their thoughts about a situation and to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns;
  • to think flexibly;
  • to connect with others and build positive relationships;
  • and to develop a positive self-concept and to reach out to new opportunities and take risks.

Below are some strategies for parents and professionals to support children in developing a range of resiliency skills:

1. Breathe! As adults, we can use breathing techniques to help manage our emotions, reduce anxiety and feel calmer when stressed. There are some online mindful breathing exercise videos which are effective ways to teach children breathing strategies, including Starfish breathing (not to be confused with the Starfish Project) and Breathing Buddies. Remember that the exhalation, or breathing out, is just as important (if not more so) as the in breath.

2. Work on building your own resilience and remember this is an ongoing process. The Resilience Factor (Shatte and Reivich, 2002) is a useful book for adults to learn ways to boost their own resilience. 

3. Model how to talk about your feelings. Children learn from the adults around them. If we show them that it’s okay to talk about how we feel, we can help them to understand that all feelings are normal and accepted. Talking about other people’s feelings (e.g. in stories or television programmes) can also help with this.

4. Help children to express their feelings. Children may find it easier to express their emotions in ways other than talking about them. Drawing a picture, using Playdough or using puppets can all be creative outlets. 

5. Help children to be flexible in their thinking – children can sometimes show ‘all or nothing’ thinking at times and adults can support them to become more flexible thinkers by using questions. E.g. if a child says they had a bad day at school, an adult might acknowledge this and then ask ‘which part of your day was ok?’

6. Encourage children to be kind to themselves by asking ‘what would your best friend say to you?’ or ‘what would you say to your best friend if they were feeling the same way?’

7. Model imperfections – we learn from making mistakes and if we are able to view ‘failure’ or mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, we can push ourselves to do things that are challenging. Adults can model a helpful way of responding when things don’t go to plan, to support children to manage their own emotions and thinking patterns and to aim for ‘good enough’ rather than ‘perfect’

8. Notice the positives – write down one thing every day that you are pleased to notice. Shifting our perspective to what is working well helps to boost our mood and help us to recognise our strengths and resources. Adults can encourage children to do this too (e.g. by writing words or drawing pictures).

9. Give authentic and descriptive praise to build children’s confidence – be accurate and specific in your description (avoiding ‘general’ praise words such as good/brilliant/fantastic) focusing on effort and the process of learning e.g. ‘You concentrated really hard on learning how to pedal and keep your balance. You showed lots of determination!’

10. Encourage a ‘can-do’ attitude by supporting children to challenge set beliefs of ‘I can’t do it’, to build their belief in the things they can do, to take risks and try new things 

We all have the capacity for resilience but it needs to be nurtured to grow, and it’s an ongoing process. At different times of life and in different situations, we will need to develop specific abilities more than others. It’s important to take care of ourselves (as professionals or parents) so that we can support children by modelling resilient responses ourselves (Pearson & Kordich Hall, 2006). This will help children to develop their own resilient thinking patterns, embrace challenges, bounce back from difficult times and reach their full potential. 

Pearson, J., & Kordich Hall, D. (2006). Reaching in…reaching out: Resiliency guidebook

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