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4. How you can help

inattention button Working memory button Processing speed button Hand eye coordination speed button Social and emotional button Maths button

Supporting children with inattention

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  • Everyone finds it easier to concentrate when they are enjoying an activity. Use the child’s own interests where you can, and try to introduce new ideas using an engaging context.
  • It is not always helpful to have an inattentive child working on their own. Look for opportunities to use oral and practical work with a partner. This helps build social and friendship links, too.
  • Encourage the child to focus on one task at a time. For example, some children may find it helpful to fold under the part of a worksheet that isn’t being worked on yet.
  • When children experience difficulties with starting work, give small targets for them to work to. For example, “Write two sentences on chemical reactions and show them to me.” Using writing frames to provide a structure or other forms of scaffolding can also be helpful.
  • Break assignments into chunks and set short-term deadlines for the completion of each task.
  • Work with the child to agree a subtle cue to remind them to stay on task, such as a touch on the shoulder. Avoid calling out the child’s name – it can be distracting!
  • Try prompting the child to make sure they have understood instructions and to keep them focussed on a task. For example you could ask, “What have you got to do first?” or “Can you talk me through what you are going to do?” This can give you the chance to help spot things that they may have missed.
  • Agree with the child a plan for completing tasks. Review this together regularly and encourage the child to evaluate its efficacy himself/herself.
  • Try to minimise distractions as much as possible. For example, try to put busy classroom displays on a wall where they are not visible to the inattentive child.
  • Provide opportunities for sensory breaks by involving the child in classroom management tasks, for example, helping to distribute or collect books.
  • Work together! Ask the child what they find distracting and try to reduce these distractions where possible.

Supporting children with working memory difficulties

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  • Try to give short, single-step instructions. When you do need to give a sequence of instructions, you could help children with working memory difficulties by writing them on the board, repeating them, having children repeat them back to you or by providing a reminder on paper.
  • Use memory aids to reduce the working memory demands of new ideas. For example, you could use spelling or word cards, cubes, counters, number lines, number squares or multiplication grids.
  • Work together with the child to develop his or her own memory strategies. For example, mnemonics, chunking information, and verbal rehearsal may be helpful for children with working memory difficulties.
  • Some classroom activities can involve high working memory demands. Be mindful of this when planning your lessons. Adding a ‘working memory demands’ section on your lesson plans may remind you to think about this.

Supporting children with processing speed difficulties

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  • Where appropriate, try to allow children with processing speed difficulties more time to complete tasks, especially in exams or tests. Think about whether a time limit is even necessary – sometimes, it can cause so much anxiety that it slows a child down.
  • When you ask the class a question, wait a few moments before eliciting a response so that children with slower processing speed also have the chance to answer.
  • It is often not necessary to speak slower, but pausing more often can be helpful. Highlight new vocabulary and teaching points by pausing before and after key words.
  • Help children with slower processing speed by checking with them that they’ve enough time to ‘take in’ all the instructions before starting a task.

Supporting children with poor hand-eye coordination and visuospatial skills

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  • Many tasks, including writing and drawing, need good hand-eye coordination. Try to find a balance between providing enough practice so that children with poor hand-eye coordination can improve their skills over time, but without making the work so frustrating that they give up.
  • Allow adequate time to complete written or practical tasks.
  • Some children will find it difficult to copy work from the whiteboard. Looking up at work at a distance, then looking down at their paper to write, is more challenging than you might think! Providing a paper copy of important text or letting them work with a friend can be helpful for children with poor visuospatial skills.
  • When you write on the whiteboard, try to set out information clearly, with space around each sentence or drawing. Similarly, on your worksheets, space the text out carefully and think about using boxes to highlight the most important text.
  • A ‘writing guide’ with spacing suited to the size of the child’s writing can help them to write on plain paper.
  • Try to use appropriately differentiated resources where possible, for example, well spaced out worksheets that contain only the necessary information.
  • Word processing their work can help some children, but handwriting practice is still needed. Little and often is best.
  • Talking to a friend about an activity using practical equipment can be much more effective than writing. Sometimes, an adult or another child can act as scribe, or alternatively, a drawing or photograph may be the best record of the child’s work.
  • For routine writing, such as copying titles, dates or learning objectives, pre-printed text to stick in the child’s book can be helpful.

Supporting children’s social skills and emotional wellbeing

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  • Remember that children born preterm are more likely to have social difficulties and may be shy or anxious. Try to encourage them to share their feelings and ask for help when they need it.
  • Reducing time pressures can help to reduce anxiety.
  • Some children may prefer not to contribute when put on the spot in front of the class. Talk to the child individually, earlier in the lesson, to ‘rehearse’ what you will ask in order to help them contribute ideas. A child may be more confident if they can show what they have done, perhaps with your commentary, rather than talking about it his or herself.
  • Ensure that children know who to talk to if they have a problem or feel anxious.
  • Quiet children who lack confidence may need support to take risks and join in. Ensure they are not overlooked and that they have the opportunity to build safe relationships with both adults and peers.
  • Plan for effective classroom seating arrangements and grouping for learning activities that support children’s social skills and emotional needs.
  • Where possible, use assembly, circle or tutor time to discuss friendships and relationships.
  • Adopt usual school policies such as buddy systems, friendship benches, and peer mediation as appropriate.
  • Check in regularly with shy or passive children to see how things are going. Don’t wait for them to report bullying if you suspect they are experiencing difficulties.

Supporting children with maths

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Of all the subjects studied at school, children born preterm are most likely to have difficulties with maths. This is because success in maths relies on children having good working memory, attention, visuospatial skills and processing speed, all of which preterm children can struggle with. Below are some specific strategies to help support children with maths.

Remember that maths is made up of many different areas of work, and children may have strengths as well as difficulties. Careful assessment is needed to identify specific areas of maths where a child may need extra support.

Visuospatial difficulties and hand-eye coordination

  • Visuospatial difficulties can lead to specific problems with mirror-writing digits. You can help by finding models to copy: encourage them to look at the numbers on a ruler or a number-line before writing.
  • Children may also lack confidence with multi-digit numbers, for example, confusing 24 with 42. Manipulatives such as 10s and 1s blocks can help children check place-value information.
  • Consider using squared paper. This may help children with visuospatial difficulties to align numbers correctly when solving multi-digit arithmetic problems or when writing fractions.
  • Use 3D objects or shapes to help with understanding of volume or other physical properties.

Working memory and attention

  • Multi-step problems place particularly high demands on working memory and attention. Let children try their own way of solving a problem, perhaps working with a friend, and encourage them to discuss and compare other children’s ways of working. The aim is to help children discover how a multi-step problem can be broken down into smaller steps, so they can focus on one step at a time.
  • Mental arithmetic can be especially challenging because it requires good working memory. Children will be more confident if they can jot down numbers or drawings to remind them of the key facts and interim stages needed to carry out a calculation in their head.
  • Poor working memory can make learning number facts, such as number bonds and times tables, particularly difficult. However, if these can be learnt then this reduces working memory demands when solving mathematical problems.
    • Try using manipulatives to show how each fact is made. For example 3 x 5 = 3 rows of 5 cubes.
    • Concentrate on accuracy before expecting speed of recall. Show the child ways of testing themselves, then practising again, then re-testing.
    • Encourage the child to use the facts they know, to figure out others. For example, using 5 x 5 = 25 to work out 5 x 6.
    • Don’t ask them to learn too many facts at once. Practice little and often.
  • Although learning number facts is important, children born preterm may make use of basic arithmetic strategies, such as counting on their fingers, for longer than other children who are more proficient at maths. Don’t discourage these slower strategies if they help children to understand key concepts. Being able to use different strategies to solve maths problems is a fantastic skill!
  • Make opportunities for children to explain their understanding or their way of solving problems to peers through pair or group work.
  • Research has shown that isolated working memory training is probably not effective for improving attainment in mathematics. Applying other strategies to help support children born preterm who struggle with maths is likely to be more beneficial.

  • Social and emotional

  • Some children develop maths related anxiety and have strong negative emotions when anticipating or engaging with maths. Check that the child’s work is at a suitable level and encourage them to talk about their anxious feelings, giving reassurance that they can be successful.
  • Reducing time pressures can also help to reduce maths related anxiety.

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