A new study refutes the long-held notion that children who are born prematurely are going to suffer from dyscalculia (poor math performance in spite of normal IQ).
“Instead,” says a researcher from Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (RUB), “math problems in preterm children are overwhelmingly related to the overall IQ.”
The original aim of the study was to investigate the cognitive skills of preterm children and identify specific math deficiencies independent of general IQ. However, there were none. According to the researcher, no specific math deficits existed in preterm children when their general IQ was taken into account.
“The problem with preterm children, however, is that they often have general cognitive deficits,” said Dr. Julia Jäkel from the Department of Developmental Psychology at RUB. “According to current criteria, these children can’t be diagnosed.”
Using data from the Bavarian Longitudinal Study, which has been following a birth cohort from the late 80s, Jäkel analyzed the cognitive abilities of children born between 23 and 41 weeks of pregnancy. All children completed a whole battery of tests that measured their cognitive and educational abilities, and their parents were interviewed in depth.
“Having access to such a comprehensive long-term study is a dream come true for every developmental psychologist,” says Jäkel.
The data showed that preterm children had greater difficulties with tasks that demanded higher working memory. On average, the more preterm a child had been born, the more difficulty he or she had with solving complex tasks.
This means that preterm children do not suffer from dyscalculia more often than full-term children. However, they often have math problems that may not be recognized. This is because the current criteria make it impossible to diagnose dyscalculia if a child also has general cognitive deficits. Therefore, these children do not receive special help in math although they may desperately need it.
“We need reliable and consistent diagnostic criteria,” said Jäkel. “And we’ve got to find ways to actually deliver support in schools.”
In her research, Jäkel has already demonstrated that assistance in elementary school can make a significant difference. Parents who support their preterm children can compensate for the negative cognitive effects of preterm birth.
For example, it is helpful for parents to offer their children appropriate feedback on homework and suggest potential solutions, rather than solving the tasks for the child.
However, Jäkel believes that a lot of research is yet to be done as far as intervention is concerned, “A large percentage of parents is very dedicated and has resources to help their children,” she says. “But research has not yet produced anything that would ensure successful results in the long-term.”
Together with colleagues from the university hospital in Essen, Jäkel plans to investigate the benefits of computer-aided working memory training for preterm children’s school success, which has already shown promise on an international level.
It would also be helpful if research findings from related disciplines, such as developmental psychology, educational research, and neonatal medicine were better integrated. It is known that neonatal medical treatment, in particular, can significantly affect later cognitive performance.
For example, when Jäkel analyzed the data to find specific math difficulties independent of the child’s IQ, only two variables had a direct impact: the duration of mechanical ventilation and hospitalization after birth.
In the 1980s, when children participating in the Bavarian Longitudinal Study were born, German doctors often used invasive ventilation methods. Today, less invasive methods are available, but to what extent they affect long-term cognitive performance has not yet been established.