Researchers found a simple raisin test could predict a toddler's academic abilities at the age of 8 years.
Senior study author Prof. Dieter Wolke, from the Department of Psychology at Warwick Medical School, and colleagues publish their findings in The Journal of Pediatrics.
The test - which measures how long a 20-month-old child can refrain from picking up a raisin that is placed under an opaque cup in front of them - was found to accurately predict toddlers' attention and learning capabilities at the age of 8 years.
The researchers reached their findings by analyzing data of 558 children who were part of the ongoing Bavarian Longitudinal Study, which started in Germany in 1985.
Each child was born between 25-41 weeks of pregnancy, and upon reaching the age of 20 months, their self-control abilities were assessed with a behavioral observation test known as the "raisin game."
In this test, a raisin was placed in front of each toddler, covered by an opaque plastic cup. Following three training tests, the toddlers were asked to refrain from touching and eating the raisin for 60 seconds.
Preterm children have poorer self-control, academic achievement
Of the children tested, 37% either did not wait or waited up to 10 seconds before touching the raisin, 39% waited between 11-59 seconds and 24% waited for 60 seconds.
- Around 15 million children worldwide are born preterm every year
- Complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5 years
- Malawi is the country with highest rate of preterm births per 100 live births, at 18.1, followed by Comoros and Congo - both at 16.7.
Children who were born preterm - defined in the study as between 25-38 weeks' gestation - were more likely to touch the raisin before the 60 seconds than those born full-term, at 39-41 weeks' gestation. The earlier a child was born, the lower their self-control, according to the researchers.
The same group of children underwent psychological evaluation to measure attention skills around 7 years later, when they were around 8 years old, and their academic abilities - such as reading, spelling/writing and math - were assessed with standardized tests.
The team found that the children who were born preterm and who previously showed low self-control with the raisin game had poorer attention skills and lower academic achievement at the age of 8 years, compared with those born full-term who had better self-control as a toddler.
Previous research has shown that preterm children are more likely to have attention and learning difficulties later on, and the team says these latest findings suggest such an effect may be mediated by early inhibitory control abilities.
"These findings provide new information about the mechanisms linking preterm birth with long-term attention difficulties and academic underachievement," they add.
Additionally, the researchers say their findings indicate the raisin game could be a useful tool to identify which children may be at risk for attention and learning problems later on.
Prof. Wolke explains:
"An easy, 5-minute raisin game task represents a promising new tool for follow-up assessments to predict attention regulation and learning in preterm and term-born children. The results also point to potential innovative avenues to early intervention after preterm birth."
While preterm infants are at greater risk for a number of developmental and health problems, a study published in JAMA earlier this year found outcomes for preterm babies have improved over the past 20 years.