Around 160 schoolchildren from London and the Midlands are taking part in a pioneering research project, funded by Action Medical Research, to try to understand the links between being born very prematurely and struggling with mathematics.
Half of the children involved 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, will be assessing their learning and maths skills in school.
Children’s charity, Action Medical Research, has funded the project with a grant of £159,464 over two years, as part of its drive to fund vital research to help babies and children.
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 mathematics 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.
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, 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.
The researchers will be assessing the children’s level of attainment in maths to clarify exactly what sort of problems the children have. They will do this by identifying 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.
The project is being led by Dr Johnson, from the University of Leicester, who is a psychologist with expertise in the long-term development of babies who are born very prematurely.
Dr Johnson 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 Alexandra Dedman, Senior Research Evaluation Manager, 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.”
[i] The information centre. NHS Maternity Statistics 2008-9.