As thousands of children head back to school this month, it is a good time to make sure they are well prepared for academic success.
In addition to equipping them with backpacks, notebooks and pencils, it is important to ensure that students are ready to learn.
Good vision is fundamental to learning success.
Although most schools do screen students with the basic Snelling test for 20/20 vision at a distance, they rarely test for a host of other vision skills such as close vision and tracking. School screenings typically detect only 5 percent of all vision problems. However, in the average classroom, 20 to 30 percent of students may have a vision problem. This issue raises two fundamental questions: What do we know? What can we do?
WHAT WE KNOW
Undetected vision problems can be a serious barrier to students learning at their best. A growing body of research indicates that undetected vision problems may be at least partially responsible for behavioral problems as well as academic challenges.
Many research examples have been collected. One of the earliest studies was conducted in 1949 at a Tennessee facility for juvenile offenders. The study found that 91 percent of the offenders were below grade level, and nearly all of those had a learning-related visual problem.
At a residential care facility for teenage boys in Virginia, vision screening of repeat offenders determined that 50 percent had undetected vision problems. Those who had their visual perception problems corrected were six times less likely to re-offend.
A California program concluded that the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders dropped from 70 percent to about 15 percent when visual therapy was included in the correction program.
In a New York vision screening of at-risk students, 97 percent of the students with behavioral problems failed at least one of the tracking, stereopsis, hyperopia and color vision tests. These are the kinds of vision problems that are detected with functional vision testing, which is rarely conducted in schools.
At the King County Juvenile Detention Facility, a pilot project in 2005 screened incarcerated youth for vision problems. The screening found that 80 percent of the children had undetected vision problems, including 73 percent who needed glasses and others who needed further vision evaluation.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Many kinds of vision problems reveal themselves most easily in behavior, posture and attitude. These signs usually are associated most closely with long periods of visual work done at less than arm’s length from a child’s eyes. Vision problems can be identified easily by observing a child and marking the checklist.
Parents, grandparents, caregivers and teachers should be on alert to watch for these signs. If you mark more than a few signs, there is good reason to suspect a vision problem.
Does the child:
• Squint when looking up from reading?
• Have trouble seeing the chalkboard?
• Frequently blink or rub eyes?
• Have headaches while doing school work?
• Demonstrate frequently awkwardness, bumping into things, knocking things over?
• Hold books extremely close?
• Report that things look blurry?
• Have trouble copying work from the chalkboard to paper?
• Spend a long time doing homework that should take only a few minutes?
• Experience reduced attention span, ability to concentrate for only a moderate time?
• Cover one eye by leaning on hand?
• Lay head on desk when doing pencil work?
• Frequently lose place when reading?
• Skip or re-read words and lines?
• Reverse words or letters (was and saw, b and d) beyond second grade?
• Do better at math than English, history or social studies?
• Need to re-read material several times to grasp its meaning?
• Get tired quickly when reading or doing homework?
• Daydream a lot, or stare off into the distance frequently?
• Learn best through auditory tactics (listening to learn)?
• Have problems with misbehavior (to cover up poor school performance)?
• Avoid work that includes reading or near seeing?
• Fall more than one year behind his/her group in reading-related skills?
• Have poor posture, slouching or slumping in chair?
If several of these symptoms are detected, the child should see an eye doctor. Most vision problems can be detected by an optometrist who tests for visual function as well as eye health and visual acuity. These problems often can be corrected with glasses or eye exercises.
Catching vision problems early can make a big difference in future success in school, work and life. With stronger vision skills, children experience improved grades, better self-esteem and more positive relationships at home and school.
If you have any concern about possible vision problems, please schedule a complete eye examination today. Most insurance companies include coverage for this service. It is never too early to make sure every child is well equipped to achieve their potential. Seeing well helps children to visualize a bright future.
Kathy Lambert is the King County Councilmember for District 3, which covers Redmond, and serves as chair of the Law, Justice and Human Services Committee and vice chair of the Seattle/King County Board of Health. Mary E. Baker, OD, a behavioral optometrist at Overlake Family Vision located at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, contributed to this commentary.