Most connections between the visual process and learning are fairly obvious. We read with our eyes, we write with our eyes guiding our hand across the page, we look far and near to copy from the board. Now, more than ever, the learning environment requires well-developed, flexible and sustainable visual skills. The visual process is called upon to absorb and manage staggering amounts of information, not only from the printed page, but now increasingly from computers and more recently other hand-held devices. The visual process is the most important and efficient means of gathering information in the classroom setting – be it books, computers, the chalkboard or the teacher. This is not to say that vision is the only sensory modality at work in the classroom, but it is the most effective and it is probably the primary means of quickly and effectively gathering, storing and processing information.
The visual process has been defined as the deriving of meaning and the directing of action as a result of light entering the eyes. Accurate eye movements, effortless eye teaming and focusing abilities are necessary for optimal comfort and performance. A significant percentage of students who struggle with school demands have visual conditions that lie at the root of their learning difficulties. The below-level performer is often mistaken for having an attention deficit disorder or other learning disability. Children with visually related learning problems are often thought to be lazy or indifferent, especially when they are known to have high IQs and are not performing up to their expected potential. Problems with visual information processing can even cause a child's IQ score to be lower than it should be. I have seen many children perform better on an IQ test after completing a vision therapy program.
The visual process develops throughout our lives and is pervasive in all human behavior and development. Although the visual process enables many of us to function fairly well without conscious effort or professional guidance it may not be that way for a large number of people. We must first learn to see; for most of us this occurs simply through the act of living and looking. Learning to see does not mean the mere ability to see clearly; it means learning how to point the eyes accurately, to use the two eyes in an integrated, effortless way and to combine this with flexible focusing, that is, the ability to see clearly at any distance at any moment. It is also important to have good peripheral awareness to minimize stress, to write legibly and effortlessly and to be a competent reader as well as for athletic activities. Most people have enough variety of experience to stimulate the brain to sufficiently develop all the necessary visual tools. However, just like any other endeavor, you can be barely competent, outstanding or anything in between – or you can be somewhere below the level of competent.
By the time we enter the school environment we have likely learned how to use our visual process to some reasonable degree. We now must be ready to use the visual process for seeing to learn – deriving meaning and directing action via visual information processing. It is important to understand the difference between learning to read and reading to learn. We must first learn the fundamentals of the act of reading – the mechanics of moving left to right, top to bottom on the page, the relationship between symbols and their sounds and meanings, etc. (We must also manage the fundamental visual aspects of this task – accurate eye movements, integrated eye teaming and maintaining focus.) Once we learn to read we have the opportunity for reading to learn. We want to be able to have the visual process on automatic pilot so that we can use it to gather and process information with a minimum of effort and maximum efficiency.
Much of what takes place in school involves long periods of up-close work. By first grade, a child is expected to sit in class all day, and look from far to near constantly, and sooner or later, copy varying amounts of information from some distance away onto the paper on his or her desk. Many children are expected to spend long periods of time filling out worksheets. Add to this significant amounts of nightly homework, requiring even more intensive near work. All of this adds up to put considerable stress on the visual system of the average school-aged child.
Imagine if your two eyes pointed in two slightly different directions. This would cause you to see two copies of everything, either next to each other or overlapping. If this persisted, the brain would try to eliminate one of the copies. It might succeed or it might only succeed intermittently. Now imagine that your brain can eliminate this extra image intermittently but it comes and goes unpredictably and it’s not always the same image that disappears. Sound outrageous? This is actually a fairly common type of visual problem. Now imagine trying to read this way. Normally, it is hoped that the two eyes move efficiently across the printed page as a team. In the picture I just painted, you can bet that the eyes are neither moving efficiently nor working like a team. What you get is something like this: the child reluctantly sits down to read; he starts at the top of the page and, unknown to him, his right eye is leading the way – stumbling along the page; suddenly, without warning, the left eye takes over – the problem is the left eye was looking at a different place on the page so the child can’t immediately decide where he was meaning to look and has to start over again. Even if he finds a way to avoid constantly starting over, the effort the brain must expend to carry on this constant vigilance simply does not leave enough energy and mental focus to perform at anything like a high level.
This is just one example of the negative impact a poorly functioning visual system can have on a student. The connection between learning and all the aspects of good visual functioning are much easier to grasp once we begin to understand that the visual process is much more than just seeing clearly on an eye chart in the doctor’s office,.
I hope this helps you understand why it is so important to evaluate the entire visual process and not just eyesight. A thorough evaluation by a behavioral optometrist is the only way to determine the existence and nature of a visual problem when a child is having trouble learning in school. It is not enough to simply evaluate eye health and visual acuity, which is usually confined to measuring clarity of distance sight. This is particularly true for at-risk children or those already experiencing learning difficulties. These children require and deserve a thorough evaluation of the entire visual process, most importantly eye movements, eye teaming and focusing abilities.
Do not be fooled by doctors who say that since the child can see clearly there is no problem with their vision. Find a behavioral optometrist who will evaluate your child if you as a parent have any suspicion that something visual might be involved with your child’s learning difficulty. It is a good idea to seek out a behavioral optometrist for any child who has difficulty with reading or learning. It is only by a thorough evaluation by a behavioral optometrist that the connections between visual performance and learning performance can be accurately diagnosed and treated.
Read one mother’s story of a child with visual development problems related to learning difficulties:
Read about Jillian, who at age five was diagnosed with a visual problem and after years of searching for help, finally tried vision therapy, which changed her life forever…