I read something fascinating the other day which really has got me thinking. It was about the increased survival rates of premature babies that have increased dramatically with advances in science and medicine. As such there are two parts to this.
Firstly is the extended syndrome of summer born child. I have always had an interest in this anyway as being a boy (of course – but the conisderable disadvantage in being a boy in learning terms), a twin, a summer born child (Mid August) and having been born slightly premature. The point with this is that cognitively and physically I was approximately 13 months younger than the oldest pupil when I started school – which is almost 25% behind at age 4 or 5. Given if the oldest pupil had been a girl, then given girls early and stronger development in terms of language and social skills then you can begin to see how this can have a detrimental impact on some. However much of this is well documented.
So secondly going back to the point of babies surviving who previously wouldn’t then it is not inconceivable to have a child who is 15 or 16 months months physically and cognitively behind some of their peers in the same school year. Add in gender and class and the disadvantages get greater and greater. Malcolm Gladwell has documented the effects upon both sport and academic success in being the oldest in the school year and it seems Basketball, American Football and Football all have have a concentration of those that were amongst the oldest in their year. Clearly there are exceptions but a pattern is clearly there.
However the really interesting part (for me) is that the last two months of a brains development in the womb are pretty important and whilst we have significantly improved the physical medical advances for premature babies the cognitive advances may not be as advanced. As such we now have around 80,000 children a year who miraculously are surviving but who may have prefrontal regions of the brain (which are essential for numerous functions, including attention, planning and social functioning) and other parts which are underdeveloped. There are always exceptions to this but increasingly there is an interest in the link between premature babies and special educational needs particularly forms of autism.
As part of this many teachers will be teaching children who may have underdeveloped pre frontal regions of the brain who behave and learn differently, whose brains are ‘wired in a different way’ and who may present challenges to how they teach. Such challenges need to be acknowledged through better training and awareness for teachers and increased understanding of the needs of such children. There is also a further interesting dimension to this for parents and their needs who may have already been through the trauma of a premature birth but also potentially have to deal with some of the neglect and disadvantage built into the education system!