How premature children can struggle with maths - and how research can help

Posted by ap507 at Oct 14, 2015 09:55 AM |
Action Medical Research catches up with Dr Samantha Johnson who specialises in helping children who were born prematurely. Dr Johnson is currently developing a programme to help children with maths skills that are vital for their future life chances
How premature children can struggle with maths - and how research can help

Dr Samantha Johnson

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to

What made you choose this particular area?

Having specialised in premature babies’ development over the last 15 years, I have become more and more interested in why some premature children struggle at school, especially with maths skills. My current study, PRISM-2, aims to develop a training programme to help teachers support premature children’s learning and attainment at school.

What does Action funding for this study mean to you?

Action funding means everything to me: it makes our research happen! It has allowed us to find out why children who are born prematurely might struggle at school and what we can do to help them achieve their full potential. Action funding has enabled us to be at the cutting edge of research in this field. Most importantly, it enables us to make a difference to the lives of children and families affected by premature birth.

Is there such a thing as a typical day?

My days can differ from one to the next and I love that about my work. I have an office at the University of Leicester where I do most of my day-to-day work running the PRISM-2 study, but a few days a week I am out and about at meetings, teaching students or giving presentations at conferences. It’s nice to have variety, but I work with such a wonderful team at Leicester that I am always happy to spend a day in the office.

Can you tell us a bit about the PRISM Study team?

Each member brings something unique to the team: Camilla Gilmore is an expert in children’s mathematics from Loughborough University; Lucy Cragg is an expert in children’s cognitive development from the University of Nottingham; and Victoria Simms brings expertise in children’s learning from the University of Ulster.

We also have a professor of neonatal medicine on our team, Neil Marlow from University College London; mathematics teacher Rose Griffiths from the University of Leicester; and an expert in online learning programmes, Heather Wharrad, from the University of Nottingham.

Our newest members are researcher Sarah Clayton and administrator Emma Adams.

Although we are spread across the UK, we work well together and have been very successful in terms of research. In fact, we have been productive in more ways than one: there have been five babies and one grandbaby born to members of the team since we first met!

Who’s your research hero, and why?

That’s an easy one: pioneering neonatologist Dr Maureen Hack, who carried out some of the earliest studies of the development of premature babies and showed us the importance of following these children up in the long term. Sadly, Dr Hack passed away earlier this year but I am delighted to have met her and find out what a wonderful lady she was.

As a charity, Action began in 1952 with our founder’s quest to find a cure for polio. What led you to a career in medical research?

After studying developmental psychology at university, I was lucky enough to join a team of doctors who were researching the long-term effects of premature birth. I haven’t looked back since! All my work is now focused around understanding how premature birth affects children’s development and finding ways to give them the very best start in life.

Action’s loyal and lovable mascot Paddington Bear™ is very fond of marmalade sandwiches. What’s your favourite snack?

You can ask anyone I know this question and they will say the same - chocolate. I’m a chocoholic!

Tell us something that will surprise us!

Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch. I can say it . . . and I’m a Brummie!

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