To perform well academically children require comfortable vision, not just eyes that see well, explains optometrist Dharshie Hughes of Anstice & Associates.
It makes sense to think that if your child cannot see well, then of course they cannot read, write, or learn in class to their full potential. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Optometrists regularly test children who come in with different levels of symptoms, such as losing place when reading, reading comprehension issues, and concentration difficulties in class.
The majority of these children can see well (that is, they can read the small print on the eye chart). So how does their eyesight influence their performance in school?
Behind the scenes
Like many parts of our bodies, if things are not quite working well, other areas can try to overcompensate to make things work. To maintain good eyesight, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work – eye muscle activity, coordination between these muscles and between eye balance in the eye muscles, feedback from our brain to these muscles… And then we need to make sense of all that we are seeing. This can be energy-zapping work! When something in this system is not quite working well, it doesn’t always result in reduced sight (i.e. blurry vision). Often eye muscles can overcompensate – however, they cannot do this effectively all day, especially when looking at near things, as that requires the most amount of energy and eye muscle coordination.
It’s in the muscles
We often hear parents say, “I would have never thought of eye muscles influencing our ability to see well or read well.” Over-working eye muscles to hold on to good vision will result in tired eyes, and as the day progresses and cracks begin to show, your child may experience momentary blurring of sight (which can often go unnoticed). Some children have strong enough eye muscles that hold on to good vision all day, but will come at a cost to other areas, such as reduced reading comprehension as the brain has difficulty multi-tasking when vision becomes too demanding. Interestingly, we can be genetically predisposed to certain types of unstable eye muscle behaviour – there are a lot of similarities within families.
I saw the sign
When the eye muscle system is not working efficiently, it can result in symptoms that you then observe your child experiencing when in class or at home. Some telltale signs that their eyes could be interfering with their academic ability are as follows:
• Tire easily when reading
• Lose concentration in class
• Heavy or sore eyes when reading/writing
• Weekly headaches
• Slow to read
• Small-print books are more difficult to read
• Lose place when reading (ie need a finger to point)
• Not interested in reading
• At times things become blurry for a short time, then clear
• Slow to copy from the board in class – can lose their place quickly, and sometimes it takes a few seconds for the words to clear at distance or near.
These are only some common symptoms from a long list. Often children don’t know what is normal and what isn’t. So in order to rule out their eyes influencing their learning in class, it is very important to have their eyes tested if there are any concerns about their academic ability.
See the eye doctor
An optometrist familiar in dealing with these visual issues in children will be able to uncover the degree of muscle imbalance or overwork, and/or coordination difficulties. Optometrists are able to quantify this clinically and help relieve this imbalance in their visual system. Their improvement can then be tracked clinically over time – both in optometric measurements of eye muscle behaviour, as well as the measure of reading rate improvements and symptom reduction. Improvements can occur quite quickly over a few months, but other cases can take several months, depending on the age of the child and the degree of the issue. The earlier we can intervene, the better.
Early eye exams
It’s recommended you new school entrants six months to settle into school, and then, if you have any concerns about their learning, have their eyes tested when they are five-anda-half years old. Beyond this, the sooner the better for any child with a history of academic ability being of concern in any way. If they have had an eye exam previously and all was ruled out, it is important to remember that things can change from year to year as they grow, and an eye exam is worth revisiting. Yearly reviews are recommended.