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Pioneering research exploring learning difficulties in premature children wins prestigious award

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A pioneering study into the mathematical performance of children born prematurely has received a national research award.

The Premature Infants’ Skills in Mathematics (PRISM) study, which was carried out by a team of experts in children’s development from Loughborough University and across the UK, has been awarded The Neil O’Connor Award by the British Psychological Society for excellence in the field of understanding the nature and causes of developmental disabilities.

Funded by Action Medical Research, the PRISM study assessed the learning and maths skills of a group of children who were born very prematurely, before 32 weeks of pregnancy, and a group of children who were born after a full pregnancy.

It found that the premature children were more likely to have difficulties with maths in primary school and showed, for the first time, that these stemmed from problems with memory and hand-eye co-ordination.

Dr Camilla Gilmore, Senior Research Fellow at Loughborough’s Maths Education Centre, worked on the PRISM study alongside Dr Samantha Johnson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Leicester’s Department of Health Sciences; Dr Victoria Simms, Lecturer in Psychology at Ulster University; Dr Lucy Cragg, Assistant Professor at University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology; and Professor Neil Marlow  from University College London.

The PRISM research team has also received a second grant from Action Medical Research to follow-up the children who took part in the PRISM study to find out how their maths skills are developing now they are in secondary school. The team is currently developing an intervention for teachers to provide them with the skills they need to support premature children’s learning in school.

Dr Gilmore said: “Maths difficulties can have a profound impact on children’s future life chances, which is why the results of the PRISM study are so important in helping us to understand – for the first time – why some premature children have difficulty learning maths.

“To have our research honoured with The Neil O’Connor Award is a fantastic achievement and reinforces why it is essential that we continue to develop the right types of interventions to support premature children’s learning both now and in the future.”

Dr Johnson added: “We are delighted that our research has been recognised for its contribution to science and to furthering understanding of the causes of children’s learning difficulties. As a team, it is our goal to improve the lives of children with learning difficulties, and the PRISM study was a big step forward in helping us to do this.”

The PRISM study titled Nature and origins of mathematics difficulties in very preterm children: a different etiology than developmental dyscalculia was published in Pediatric Research and is available to view here.