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Parents of premature children should prepare to take on an advocacy role in school system

October 24, 2018

A new study highlights teachers’ lack of knowledge about the impact of prematurity on school success, with the suggestion that parents of preterm children will need to advocate for their children as they transition to school.

Published in Early Human Development, the study looked at parents of children born prematurely who were currently aged four to eight years and enrolled in kindergarten to grade three. Parents were recruited from Sunnybrook’s Neonatal Follow Up Clinic as well as the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation. Focus groups were conducted for 35 educators and survey data was collected for 173 educators. In addition, 174 parents completed surveys.

“The main takeaway for families of children born preterm is they should be prepared to advocate for their school-age kids,” says Dr. Paige Church, developmental paediatrician and Director of the Neonatal Follow-Up Clinic at Sunnybrook and lead author of the study. “There was a low level of knowledge and awareness among teachers about prematurity and its potential impact on their success at school, although on the upside we did find an interest to learn more about its impact on how children develop and learn.”

“It is important to understand educators’ knowledge and parents’ perception of educators’ knowledge of academic achievement and behavioral regulation among children born preterm,” says Dr. Vibhuti Shah, neonatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, part of Sinai Health System and senior author instrumental in the design of the study.

A complete pregnancy is one that extends across 40 weeks. Premature birth is any birth occurring prior to completion of 37 out of the 40 weeks of gestation. Currently 8.1 per cent of births in Canada are considered premature. Advances in neonatal medicine have progressively pushed the gestational age at which premature babies can survive, and currently, babies born before 26 weeks of age, considered micro-preemies, can survive. Premature birth is associated with a higher possibility of neurodevelopmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, vision and hearing impairment, and/or intellectual disability. More common challenges for children born premature, however, are difficulties with behavior modification, executive function, attention and learning difficulties.

“Our advice is that prematurity should be added as a key condition for educators and others in the education system. Compared to a condition like attention deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD, where there is a relatively high level of knowledge among educators, the issues associated with prematurity remain very poorly understood,” says Dr. Church. “Both parents and educators also suggested the strong need for more communication between healthcare providers and educators, to provide practical tips for classroom success.”

To read the study results in detail, please visit the Journal of Early Human Development.