Children born pre-term

Meet Becky. She is 12 years old, born at 23 weeks gestation. She finds it difficult to concentrate, make friends, cope with multiple demands and she struggles with low self esteem.

To her teachers in primary, she appeared happy and willing to please but now, her vulnerability is beginning to show and she is becoming more socially and academically isolated.

Eight percent of all live births are premature. This equates to at least two children in every class. Do you know who they are? Should you? Teachers are more likely to be aware of the challenges a child might face in their early education if they are summer born, than of those born pre term. That needs to change.

Pre-term birth pupils are those born before 37 weeks. These children are more likely to have special educational needs than children born full term. And on average, children who are premature have lower levels of academic attainment. 

More knowledge of pre-term children’s potential difficulties is crucial in helping us identify the most appropriate curriculum support.  As a group, children born preterm have lower attainment, (but not necessarily ability) across all subjects and they are most likely to struggle in Maths.

We tend to see more difficulties in cognitive rather than physical skills; in particular, processing speed & working memory. This can significantly impact in learning, for example, mental arithmetic that requires holding interim calculations in mind. Hand eye co-ordination can also be affected so the alignment of columns, reading data from graphs or telling the time can also present more of a challenge.

Why don’t we hear more about this issue? Perhaps this is down to commonly held belief that whilst a child who was premature might lag behind developmentally in their early years of education they will ‘catch up’ later. However this is not always the case, and the gaps persist into adulthood.

Prematurity can also impact on a child’s social and emotional development with four times more likelihood of experiencing attention problems than children born full term.

A (2017) study by Prof Dieter Wolke, Sam Johnson and colleagues (funded by the Nuffield Foundation) looked at whether delaying school entry enabled children born premature to catch up but they found no evidence to support this premise.

In fact they recommended children born preterm are provided with additional support.  More alarmingly, their research showed that over 80% of teachers and over 50% of Educational Psychologists had received no formal training on affect of preterm births on children’s learning.

Prematurity is a risk factor, not a proxy, for poor learning, and much needed awareness raising should not be an excuse for low expectations.

Let’s raise that awareness but let’s also not label all children born prematurely as problematic learners. They have ability and we need to find it and support it.


Wolke, D et al (2017) The Impact of Premature Birth on Mathematics, Achievement and Schooling

A fantastic resource called PRISM for education professionals is hosted on the University of Nottingham website and shared here.