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Premature birth: tackling children’s difficulties with maths at school

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What did the project achieve?

This research has developed an interactive e-learning resource for education professionals, to help improve and support learning for children born prematurely.

Children who are born preterm, before 37 weeks of pregnancy, are at higher risk of developing learning difficulties and special educational needs as they grow up.

Samantha Johnson, Professor of Child Development at the University of Leicester, has developed a novel e-learning resource with colleagues from the University of Nottingham, Loughborough University, Ulster University and University College London.

This tool explains the impact preterm birth can have on a child’s development and learning and includes practical strategies that teachers can use to support children in their school.

The resource has been trialled by 61 primary school teachers and after using it there was a large increase in their knowledge of preterm birth and in their confidence in supporting preterm pupils in their class.
Children born extremely preterm, before 28 weeks of gestation, are most likely to need extra support, but those born just a few weeks early may still face difficulties in school.

Professor Johnson said: “Our initial research identified that teachers have limited training about the difficulties children born prematurely might face and how to support these children at school. 
“However, when teachers used our new e-learning resource their confidence in how to support a preterm child increased significantly. So much so that 97% of teachers in the study said they would recommend it to others.”

This e-learning resource is now available to schools and teachers throughout the world at no cost and it’s hoped it will represent a key advance in improving educational outcomes for children born prematurely.

This research was completed on

Around 16,000 babies are born very prematurely, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, each year in the UK.1-4 Being born this early puts children at high risk of experiencing learning difficulties, particularly in maths, but many teachers feel ill equipped to help. Dr Samantha Johnson, of the University of Leicester, is studying teenagers who were born very prematurely to find out which areas of maths they are struggling with and why. She will draw on her findings to develop a web-based, e-learning programme for teachers, explaining how to help children achieve their full potential if they were born too soon.

How are children’s lives affected now?

“Many children who were born prematurely, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, have learning difficulties,” says Dr Johnson. “Of all school subjects, these children are most likely to struggle with maths. Such difficulties, even in primary school, can affect children’s prospects throughout their whole life.”

Maths skills are reported as being even more important than reading skills in predicting life chances. They are linked to future employment prospects and earning potential.

As one in every 50 babies is born before 32 weeks of pregnancy, almost all teachers will be responsible for supporting such children at school.1

“We’ve found that teachers often have poor knowledge about the needs of premature children, with many feeling ill-equipped to support such children’s learning, especially in maths,” says Dr Johnson. “Children who were born very early may not be getting appropriate support in the very area they need it the most.”


How could this research help?

“We are investigating the learning and maths skills of teenagers who were born very prematurely to find out which areas of maths they are struggling with and why,” says Dr Johnson. “Importantly, we also hope to find out what types of support these young people need at school.”

With earlier funding from Action Medical Research, the team studied the same children when they were eight to 10 years old. Now they are exploring how the children’s maths skills have developed from primary to secondary school.

“We will use the information gained in this research to develop a web-based, e-learning programme that shows teachers how best to support premature children’s learning, especially in maths,” says Dr Johnson. “In earlier work, we found that over 90 per cent of teachers in the UK wanted this sort of support. We hope to enable teachers to help all premature children to achieve their full potential.”


1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Preterm labour and birth final scope. 10 July 2013. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/gid-cgwave0660/documents/preterm-labour... Website accessed 28 January 2015.

2. ISD Scotland. Births in Scottish Hospitals. Year ending 31st March 2013. Publication date – 26th August 2014. http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Maternity-and-Births/Publicatio... Website accessed 19 January 2015.

3. Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. Births. Live Births, 1887 to 2013 (Excel). http://www.nisra.gov.uk/demography/default.asp8.htm Website accessed 19 January 2015.

4. Office for National Statistics. Births in England and Wales 2013. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/birth-summary-tables--england-and-wa... Website accessed 19 January 2015.




Project Leader Dr Samantha J Johnson BA PhD CPsychol AFBPsS
Project Team Dr Camilla K Gilmore DPhil CPsycholDr Lucy Cragg PhD CPsycholProfessor Neil Marlow DM FMedSciDr Victoria Simms BSc PhD CPsycholDr Rose Griffiths NTF(HEA) PhDProfessor Heather Wharrad BSc PhD
Project Location Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester
Project Location Other Mathematics Education Centre, Loughborough UniversitySchool of Psychology, University of NottinghamInstitute for Women's Health, University College LondonSchool of Psychology, Ulster UniversitySchool of Education, University of LeicesterSchool of Health Sciences, University of Nottingham
Project duration 3 years
Date awarded 5 January 2015
Project start date 4 August 2015
Project end date 3 February 2019
Grant amount £217,490
Grant code GN2311


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