Dr Suna Eryigit-Madzwamuse, Research Fellow in the University of Brighton’s College of Life, Health and Physical Sciences, co-authored the study ‘Preterm Toddlers' Inhibitory Control Abilities Predict Attention Regulation and Academic Achievement at Age 8 Years’ which is published in the November issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.
Dr Eryigit-Madzwamuse said: “We knew the adverse impact of preterm birth on attention and academic success from our past research. This study sheds light on its underlying mechanism.
“This provides crucial knowledge for designing early education strategies that will build preterm-born children’s resilience which in turn will promote their development and achievement at school.”
The study’s senior author, Professor Dieter Wolke, at the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology and at Warwick Medical School, said: “An easy, five-minute raisin game task represents a promising new tool for follow-up assessments to predict attention regulation and learning in preterm and term born children. The results also point to potential innovative avenues to early intervention after preterm birth.”
Data were collected as part of the prospective Bavarian Longitudinal Study which began in Germany in 1985 and is still underway. During the study, 558 children born at 25 to 41 weeks gestation were assessed for self-control once they were 20 months old. The results of those born preterm between 25-38 weeks were compared to those born a healthy full term between 39-41 weeks.
Around age eight, the same children were evaluated by a team of psychologists and pediatricians using three different behaviour ratings of attention from mothers, psychologists and the whole research team. Academic achievement – including mathematics, reading and spelling/writing – was assessed utilizing standardised tests.
The findings concluded that the lower the gestational age, the lower a toddler's inhibitory control – and the more likely those children would have poor attention skills and low academic achievement at eight-years-old.
Julia Jaekel, lead author of the study and honorary research fellow at the University of Warwick and Assistant Professor of child and family studies at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said: “This new finding is a key piece in the puzzle of long-term underachievement after preterm birth.”
The academics believe that being able to identify cognitive problems early on could result in the development of specialist, tailored education to help prevent these children underachieving at school and later on as adults.