One-on-One with Tier One: Drs. Milena Keller-Margulis and Allison Dempsey

Dr. Milena Keller-Margulis

Dr. Milena Keller-Margulis

In the United States, various factors are associated with preterm birth, including maternal characteristics, environmental factors and socioeconomic status. While medical advancements have increased premature survival rates, potential developmental and medical difficulties as a result of preterm birth remain variable, though the amount of prematurity functions as an indicator of possible impairments. Dr. Milena Keller-Margulis, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Houston (UH) and co-principal investigator Dr. Allison Dempsey, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and at the Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, were awarded a $19,530 grant from the Society for the Study of School Psychology (SSSP) to investigate early indicators of academic and behavioral difficulties among children born preterm.

What are your goals for the current research?

The primary goals are to identify when behavioral and academic skill difficulties manifest in this population and to inform multidisciplinary research about meaningful and sensitive measurement of these deficits.

How will this grant help your current research?

This grant will allow us to follow a previously recruited cohort of children born preterm. We identified and recruited this group as part of an earlier study when they were 18 to 24 months of age. Children and their families will be invited to return for developmental assessment. This funding will allow us to evaluate this group of children born preterm when they are approximately four years of age to determine whether they have begun to demonstrate difficulties with pre-academic skills and behavioral functioning. We hope to continue to follow them into the future, pending additional grant support.

What are the common characteristics displayed by children born preterm? 

Children born preterm have different presentations, ranging from significant impairments like cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and autism to conditions that have a high-incidence, but are less debilitating such as learning disabilities that often become evident once they reach school age.

Is the correlation between preterm birth and academic and behavioral difficulty strong? 

There is a clear relationship between preterm birth and impairment in various areas of development, including cognition, behavior and academics. Increases in prematurity are associated with increased impairment. Researchers are continuing to work on understanding the strength of these correlations, as the measurement of these difficulties among children born preterm is imprecise.

How will your research help to identify developmental or academic difficulty within this population?

We know that children who are born preterm often show difficulties once they reach school age, but currently it is not clear when those difficulties first emerge. Knowing when children who are born preterm first show deficits compared to normative performance would allow us to provide early intervention that will increase the likelihood of success.

Particularly, we are interested in identifying early indicators of the less severe conditions that might only be identified once the child has entered school, such as learning disabilities. We also hope to develop a measure or battery of screening tools that can be used to identify the risk factors for this group accurately and efficiently.

Dr. Allison Dempsey

Dr. Allison Dempsey

What is the significance of this study for not only parents or caregivers, but also the University of Houston and the Houston community?

The significance for the population of interest in this study is the potential for early identification of difficulties that can lead to early intervention. This project also represents a collaboration between faculty from UH and the UT Health Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine.

For more information, visit the Department of Educational Psychology.

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