Premature babies: Advocating for your child at school

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Your goal is to work with your child's teacher to get the best education for your child. Your child has the right to attend school and if you feel they're not getting a "fair shake," get involved with the administration.

Key points

  • For many types of developmental assessments, children born prematurely will be scored from their corrected age instead of their actual age.
  • You can advocate for your child at school by seeking help from experienced people, knowing your child's rights, and developing good relationships with school staff.

Your goal is to work with your child’s teacher to get the best education for your child. Your child has the right to attend school and if you feel they are not getting fair treatment, get involved with the administration. If your child has special needs because of a physical, psychological, or intellectual impairment, you may have to make more effort than other parents to ensure that your child gets the most out of school.

School age and corrected age

For many types of developmental assessments, children who were born premature are scored from their ‘corrected’ age rather than from their actual age. For example, a child who is one year old but was born 3 months premature, will be considered only 9 months old for assessment purposes. This is because the child’s abilities will likely not reach the level of a full-term one-year-old until probably three months later.

While some premature babies eventually “catch up” developmentally with full-term babies, some do not and remain developmentally delayed. This can have profound implications when school begins.

For example, a child born three months prematurely in November should have been born the following February. Since entry into school is generally set by what year the child was actually born, this child will start school with children who normally would have been a year ahead of them. In other words, had the child been born full-term, they would be one of the older kids in their grade. However, if they are put into school according to their actual age, they will be the youngest and least mature child in the class.

This can be an issue for many premature children, especially if the child has some sort of learning disability or some other kind of issue that affects learning. Placement based on the child’s chronological birth date can result in social difficulties. For the premature children who also have some sort of learning disability, putting them into the higher grade, where they will already be the youngest student in the class, will likely exacerbate their learning difficulties and make it harder for them to achieve, since they will be expected to acquire skills at an earlier age than would normally be expected.

Some parents, with or without the advice of professionals who have been following the child, decide to hold the child back and enrol the child in kindergarten according to the year they should have been born. This provides the child with an “extra” year of developmental maturation before entering grade one.

Some school boards and principals will understand that this strategy is a good idea, others may not. It may be necessary for parents to convince the school board that the child should be held back a year, if that is what is decided to be best for the child.

How to advocate for your child at school

Here are some tips for how to approach school officials and convince them of your child’s needs:

  • Seek help from people with experience. Your child’s treatment team, parent support groups, and other parents may all have information to help you. Consider support groups for children born prematurely. They will know how to guide you through the education system, even if their child’s issues are different from yours.
  • Know your child’s rights. Every child has a right to an education. Each province or state has different laws about services that must be provided for a child who is ill or disabled. Again, talk to others with experience. They can give you an idea of what you can legally expect in terms of services such as tutors or special education.
  • Develop good relationships with your child’s teacher, principal, and office staff at the school. You might need to work together at some point if your child is facing problems. Keep in touch if there are changes in your child’s condition that they should know about. Also, they can tell you how your child is doing.
  • Understand your child’s situation. Each child’s experience is different. By knowing what your child needs, you can ask for the right type of help.
  • Be prepared to work to get what your child needs. This may be as simple as asking the teacher to give your child extra time on a test. Or it may involve having your child evaluated for any potential learning difficulties and then securing tutoring.
  • Be firm, rational and calm. Sometimes, out of frustration parents can become irate, especially when facing school officials who are unsympathetic. Unfortunately, becoming overly emotional or aggressive about your child’s needs is not helpful. Sometimes reacting this way encourages school officials to dismiss what may be reasonable requests for help.
Last updated: October 31st 2009