In the 1930’s, Dr. Wendell Johnson decided to create an experiment to test out his theory that stuttering is a learned behavior and occurs as a result of a child being told that they stutter.

Johnson was quoted to have said that stuttering ”begins not in the child’s mouth but in the parent’s ear”. 

His research assistant, Mary Tudor, went on to take a group of children who stutter and a group of children that were fluent and separate them into groups to determine if children who were fluent would begin stuttering if they were told they stuttered and if children who stuttered would stop stuttering if they were treated as a fluent child. Some of the children (both fluent and disfluent children) received praise in regards to their speech and some were provided harsh criticism to include statements such as “Don’t ever speak unless you can do it right.” The results of the study indicated that the children (both fluent and nonfluent) receiving harsh criticism demonstrated reduced speech, shorter utterances and negative feelings about speaking. However, in my opinion, this did nothing to prove that stuttering is caused by telling a child that they stutter, rather demonstrated how verbal abuse can result in social anxiety! The study was never published and later dubbed “The Monster Study” due to how unethical it was. (Reynolds, 2003) Unfortunately, remnants of Johnson’s theory still remain and many parents worry about the possible negative effects of drawing attention to their child’s stuttering.

Not only do I disagree with Johnson’s premise that labeling a child’s speech as disfluent could induce stuttering, I venture to say that NOT labeling it and ignoring a child’s disfluencies can potentially be harmful.

Whether or not a child voices frustration about their speech, even at a young age they usually begin to have some awareness that their speech is different than others around them. By not addressing this difference, it becomes the elephant in the room and can inadvertently teach a child that stuttering is wrong and not something to talk about. When a child tries to hide stuttering, what happens?? They stutter more (or talk less!).

I encourage my clients to use kid-friendly terms such as “turtle talk”, “easy speech”, “bumpy speech” and “hard speech” to label the different ways we may speak (which of course is quite different than the negative statements and words used in Johnson’s research). Children then are able to more freely and more easily talk to parents when they are frustrated or simply explain to parents what is going on (“I’m using hard speech today!”) I also suggest that parents point out “bumps” in their own speech to show that everyone has disfluencies sometimes and that the child is not alone.

Let’s use an analogy!

If a child is having difficulty with math at school, do you ignore it because you don’t want to draw attention to it? Absolutely not! You address the issue in a supportive manner so that the child knows you will love them no matter but at the same time you encourage them to make good choices about how to make math easier for them (i.e. getting extra help from a teacher or tutor). Same goes for speech!

Once the topic is out in the open, the SLP and the parent can more easily teach the child to make different choices pertaining to the timing and tension of their speech. After all, how can one change if they don’t know what they’re changing!

Weigh in on this topic, comment below!