Pupils born preterm ‘slipping under the radar’

Children born prematurely are often quiet and compliant which means they can be missed by teachers, says the parent of a preterm child

Pupils born preterm ‘slipping under the radar’

Preterm children are “slipping under the radar” in Scottish schools because teachers do not usually know who they are, says the mother of a teenager who was born 17 weeks early.

Gill Doyle – a part-time teacher and mother of 13-year-old Jenny, who was born at 23 weeks – would like to see being born preterm listed as an additional support need, given that it can affect a child’s ability to learn.

“Not all preterms are the same,” said Ms Doyle. “Where we live, I know a few others who are 23 weeks, 24 weeks – some have hearing loss, some are absolutely fine and have no issues with their learning, so it’s always important to realise everyone is different.

“Being preterm is a risk factor, not a diagnosis.”


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However, she says that there are some characteristics commonly found in preterm children which mean that they can be overlooked in the classroom.

She continued: "A lot of these children are very compliant – they are not going around setting off fire alarms or nicking stuff off other people. They are the ones [who] are going to be missed by teachers because they are good, they want to please and they are quiet.”

Jenny got the support she needed at school because her needs were complex – she has cerebral palsy, a vision impairment and microcephalus, which means she has a small brain – but other preterm children without these diagnoses often go unnoticed and unsupported, said Ms Doyle.

She added: “Headteachers need to know the risk of preterms; they need to know that being born early can have an effect. And teachers should know because then they can target interventions towards them.”

A preterm baby is one who is born before 37 weeks of gestation. In the UK, that is around 8 per cent of all babies born, and in every classroom it is estimated there will be at least three children who were born preterm. 

University of Leicester developmental psychologist Professor Samantha Johnson told Tes earlier this year that these children could be missing out on vital support due to a dearth of knowledge in schools about the challenges they might face – and a poor track record of identifying children who may be affected.

Speaking on an episode of Tes Podagogy, she said children born preterm were at greater risk of attention difficulties, social and emotional difficulties; difficulties interacting with peers and maintaining friendships; and being shy, anxious or withdrawn.

Ms Doyle – who along with Jenny was presenting at the Children in Scotland annual conference in Edinburgh yesterday – praised the West Lothian school her daughter attended for its caring ethos and teachers who went “above and beyond”.

But being in mainstream education did damage Jenny’s confidence, Ms Doyle said, because she struggled to keep up. Making friends with her peers was also difficult, she added.

As a teacher herself, Ms Doyle acknowledged it was hard to meet the needs of all pupils but some relatively simple things would have improved Jenny’s experience, she said, including making more use of technology, like the Clicker software which supports learners with reading and writing difficulties.

Jenny struggles with her handwriting but using technology made it possible for her to get her ideas down, said Ms Doyle.

In maths, greater use of concrete materials such as number lines and cubes would have helped, she said, as would an acceptance that, while it might have been appropriate for the other children to understand the process behind maths, for Jenny it was more important to learn to use a calculator and develop life skills.

Ms Doyle also put in a plea for mental maths not to be about speed, which just caused children to “panic”.

She said: “When Jenny got to P5 she was on the first level of CfE [Curriculum for Excellence]. She was never going to get beyond second level, so what she needs to know about is going to the supermarket and making sure she gets the right change and people are not going to take advantage of her. And if a calculator is going to help her, teach her to use it.”

Ms Doyle described the experience of being the parent of a preterm child as being “deeply frustrating and lonely”. There were charities to support autistic children or those with Down's syndrome, but little in the way of support for preterm children and their families – or information for teachers.

However, she highlighted an online resource developed by Professor Johnson and her colleagues as being an excellent source of information for teachers on children born prematurely.

“We need to spread the word,” she concluded.

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