Parents often go to great lengths to help their children succeed in the classroom. Offering homework help and/or hiring tutors can help kids achieve their academic potential, but parents should not overlook the effects their children’s vision can have on their performance in the classroom.
The American Optometric Association notes that students perform visual tasks in the classroom throughout a typical school day. Kids rely on their vision when reading, writing, or using computers. When that vision is not functioning properly, students’ performance may suffer.
Because undeveloped or poorly developed visual skills elicit many of the same symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, some kids struggling with their vision may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. To ensure kids are accurately diagnosed, the AOA recommends that children receive routine eye examinations. This is especially important for school-aged children, as vision changes frequently during this period. Visual problems like myopia (nearsightedness) or refractive errors like farsightedness or astigmatisms can adversely affect students’ academic performance.
Parents and teachers may often think that squinting to focus at distance or near is the main issue with a child’s vision, but there are many other problems that are often harder to detect (and that can’t be determined during a vision screening at school), according to Dr. Eric Bran, an optometrist at Ridgefield Family Eye Care, which celebrated its 45th anniversary recently. “Some common vision problems include losing place when reading, having to reread words, losing focus after reading for periods of time, and strain related to using hand-held devices and computers,” he states. “It’s estimated that 80% of what kids learn in school is through their visual system, so when a problem is identified, it can make a huge difference in a child’s academic success.
Rather than looking for or waiting for warning signs that kids may be struggling with their vision, parents should take their children for eye exams before problems begin to surface.
“Parents should not be looking for warning signs that kids may be struggling with their vision because many pathologies produce no apparent problem,” explains Dr. Jason Rutherford, an optometrist at Darien Eyecare. “Both eyes might be open, for example, but the child may be seeing correctly with only one of them, and could be in danger of developing amblyopia (lazy eye). Instead, a better option is to bring children in for annual eye exams.”
It’s recommended that children have a complete eye exam with an eye doctor at age 3, and then before entering kindergarten, Dr. Bran says: “With young children, they generally have good vision, so our focus on the exam is often about how the eyes are working together as a team. Problems with eye coordination are a common reason that children struggle with reading and concentrating in the classroom.”
The first eye exam should occur at 6 months of age, according to Dr. Rutherford. “It should be noted that the regular pediatric evaluation is not the same as an examination by an optometrist or ophthalmologist who will be able to dilate the pupils and have access to a high powered microscope as well as a complete set of lenses,” he states. “Some offices have a minimum age of 5 or 6 years old before they will see a child, so check with your local office when you make an appointment.”
What can parents expect at their child’s first eye exam? “The doctor will ensure that the child’s vision is functional, and that he or she is meeting appropriate milestones,” Dr. Rutherford explains. “Problems that could cause vision loss later in the child’s life, such as strabismus (eye turns), farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism (extra curvature to the eye or lens), can be detected early and addressed.”
Kids are often excited about their first exam, though some are a little nervous, according to Dr. Bran. “We let kids know what they will feel or experience before each test,” he states. “They will be asked to read letters or identify pictures to check for both near and far vision. We also check to see how well their eyes work together and we’ll look for problems such as a lazy eye. We also examine the health of the eyes in the microscope and let the children know they will notice some bright lights in their eyes, though nothing is uncomfortable.”
Children, who often experience their largest vision changes between the ages of 8 and 18, should undergo annual eye exams, Dr. Bran contends. “The most exciting advances in eye care today involve slowing down or stopping the worsening of nearsightedness,” he explains. “For years, the solution to clearer vision was a stronger prescription. By fitting kids with specially designed contact lenses, however, they can have clear, comfortable vision throughout the day and potentially stop their vision from continuing to deteriorate as they grow.”
Dr. Rutherford concludes, “Many parents are concerned that their child may be sitting too close to the TV or holding digital devices very close to their eyes. The important thing to consider is that some of them may be undiagnosed with myopia (nearsightedness) and they are really just trying to solve a simple problem. An evaluation should be done to determine the cause before punishing them for something they may not be able to control.”