Testing begins: pioneering study explores links between being born early and difficulties with maths

Posted by pt91 at Feb 22, 2012 04:10 PM |
University of Leicester leads work into later skills development in premature babies

Issued by Action Medical Research on 22 February 2012

Around 160 schoolchildren from London and Leicestershire are taking part in a pioneering study, funded by Action Medical Research, to try to understand the links between being born very prematurely and struggling with mathematics.

Over 10,000 babies are born very prematurely (more than eight weeks early), each year in the UK.[i] Sadly, many go on to develop learning disabilities. Difficulties with maths are especially common in these children. A maths disability can have far-reaching consequences throughout life and children can have special educational needs at school.

Data collection and testing children in schools and also in their homes has begun for the Premature Infants’ Skills in Mathematics Study, also called the PRISM Study. The researchers are investigating the nature and causes of premature children’s difficulties with maths with the longer term aim of finding ways to boost their performance.

These difficulties with maths seem to be very particular, and cannot be accounted for simply by a lower IQ, for example. However, the nature and causes of children’s difficulties with maths remain poorly understood.

Project leader, Dr Samantha Johnson from the University of Leicester, said: “We are carrying out this important study to help us understand what aspects of maths premature children find particularly difficult and what the underlying causes might be. Our work could eventually mean parents and teachers have better information about each child’s particular needs and what sort of special educational support might suit them best.”

“Longer term, we hope to use the knowledge we gain to find ways to improve the children’s skills in maths. This is likely to have knock-on effects in other subjects,” she added.

Half of the children involved in this new project were born more than eight weeks early and each of them is being studied along with a classmate who was born at full term. The children are all aged eight to ten and a psychologist, who has no knowledge of which children are which, is assessing their learning and maths skills.

Billy Harrison is ten years old and was born nearly fifteen weeks early weighing just 2lbs 1oz. He was the first child to take part in the Action Medical Research funded study in Leicester and was very keen to be involved.

“Billy struggled a lot when he first went to school and was behind other children. With extra help and tuition, paid for privately, Billy has gone from strength to strength. By contributing to a better understanding of the difficulties children born prematurely face, this study could mean others like Billy are in the future offered the extra support they need as a matter of course and we are proud to be part of that,” Billy’s mum Nicole says.

Children’s charity, Action Medical Research, has funded the PRISM Study with a grant of £159,464 over two years, as part of its drive to fund vital research to help babies and children.

The researchers are assessing the children’s level of attainment in maths to clarify exactly what sort of problems they may have. They will do this by identifying strengths and specific areas of weakness in their understanding and abilities; their understanding of numbers and of strategies used when adding and dividing, for example, and identifying differences in the children’s general abilities, such as attention and memory skills, which could underlie maths disabilities.

Dr Johnson, a psychologist the University of Leicester with expertise in the long-term development of babies who are born very prematurely, will work closely with two other psychologists, Dr Camilla Gilmore from Loughborough University and Dr Lucy Cragg from the University of Nottingham, and Professor Neil Marlow, from University College London, a specialist in neonatology – the branch of medicine concerned with the care, development and diseases of newborn babies.

Dr Caroline Johnston, Senior Research Evaluation Manager at Action Medical Research, said: “This research team hopes to boost our understanding of exactly what sort of problems children who were born very early can have with maths. They also hope to learn more about the root causes of the children’s maths disabilities.”

Video credit: ITV Central Tonight Regional News, 6pm 3/2/12. By Amy Welch, ITV Broadcast Journalist.

ITV do not endorse any charity or organisation featured in their news programmes.

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Action Medical Research - the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children - is celebrating 60 years of vital research in 2012. We’ve been funding medical breakthroughs since we began in 1952 and have spent more than £100 million on research that has helped save thousands of children’s lives and changed many more. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:

  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.

But there is still so much more to do. Make 2012 a special year and help fund more life-changing research for some of the UK’s sickest babies and children.

[i] The information centre. NHS Maternity Statistics 2008-9.

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