Online learning resource helps early years professionals support children born premature

Olivia Rook
Friday, August 23, 2019

With two to three children in a classroom likely to have been born preterm, this new resource will help teachers provide them with additional emotional and learning support.

The new e-learning resource explains what a preterm birth is and the impact it has on cognitive and motor development.
The new e-learning resource explains what a preterm birth is and the impact it has on cognitive and motor development.

With just under two weeks until the 2019-20 academic year begins, parents, teachers and children will be getting ready for the challenges of a new school term. But for some children, those challenges will be far harder to manage.

According to Samantha Johnson, a professor of child development at University of Leicester, two to three children in an average-sized class are likely to have been born premature. This means they are at risk of cognitive, motor, attention and social-emotional problems, as well as poor academic performance. Research also shows that education professionals receive little training about premature birth and its impact on learning and development.

Speaking to the TES, Prof Johnson said: ‘Every child is different, born preterm or not. Every child will have their own strengths and weaknesses… Prematurity is a risk factor, not a diagnosis, for difficulties later in life.’

Prof Johnson and a team of researchers have developed a new multimedia e-learning resource for practitioners, with input from teachers, educational psychologists, parents and young adults born premature, to help them better support children born preterm in school and early years settings.

The resource, which is freely available, explains what a preterm birth is, educational outcomes, the impact on cognitive and motor development, behavioural, social and emotional outcomes, and how educational professionals can best support children.

Research conducted in June showed that teachers’ confidence in supporting children born premature significantly improved after using the resource, and 97 per cent said they would recommend using it to others.

Prof Johnson added: ‘The strategies [outlined in the resource] will be just as useful for children with the same difficulties who were not born preterm.’

Growing concerns over children born moderately premature
The importance of this new resource has gained greater significance this month as it emerged that children born as little as three weeks premature are more likely to experience difficulties in education.

Research from the University of Leeds and health project Born in Bradford investigated the link between children born moderately premature and when in the year a child was born, to discover whether these children are in need of further support.

Previous research had already shown that children born severely premature – more than 10 weeks early – are more likely to suffer from educational difficulties.

Liam Hill, an author of the study and lecturer at the University of Leeds, said: ‘Some children born prematurely not only have to contend with having spent less time developing in the womb but also have to start school a year earlier than they would have, had they been born on their due date. This amounts to having less time also developing outside of the womb at the point they start school.

‘This can pose additional challenges right from the start of their education, and we found this can have an immediate impact on their performance, after just one year of school.’

The researchers, who looked at more than 10,000 school children from the Born in Bradford birth cohort study, found that the odds of a child born premature and not achieving a ‘Good Level of Development’ at the end of Reception were approximately twice as high as those for children born full term.

The research also indicated that holding children back from starting school did not compensate for being born premature.

Katherine Pettinger, a neonatal doctor from Born in Bradford and the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘Whilst it seems like an obvious solution, delayed entry for premature children is not likely to compensate for being born early, as we found that within a given school year, the risks to development faced by children born premature did not vary depending on when within that school year they were born.’

She instead offered that schools should identify which children have been born premature in order to provide them with extra support.

Dr Pettinger and her team suggested that the best way to tackle the problem is for health professionals to provide tailored advice to families, for appropriate learning resources to be shared with teachers, and for routine sharing of data between health and education services to be established.

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