Getting those As can depend on the eyes

Stephen Cohen, O.D., examines Austin Lynch (3) of Scottsdale. The doctor uses stickers as rewards and quick diagnostic skills to examine young patients. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

By Vicki Louk Balint

As teachers begin to introduce new material each school year, they observe and assess their students’ individual needs. Many students pick up right where they left off, while others stumble a bit before falling into the rhythm of a brand new year. But for some, the challenges and requirements of a new grade will prove daunting.

Nearly 80 percent of what a child learns is through the visual system, so healthy eyes that function properly are critical for school success, says optometrist Stephen Cohen, O.D. of Scottsdale-based Doctor My Eyes. School-related vision skills include focusing, tracking and eye coordination, each of which can impact school performance as children in the early grades progress from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

Corrective lenses are important, of course, but even a child with 20/20 vision for distance might find it tough to switch from focusing on the board at the front of the classroom to close work at a desk, says Cohen. That can make reading for extended periods of time difficult.

A vision problem can be mistaken for a learning or behavior problem, says Lynette Yazzie, who is certified as an optometric vision specialist by the College of Optometrists inVision Development, a non-profit membership of eye care professionals who offer services based on the principle that vision can be developed and changed. Yazzie works with individual children to provide “physical therapy for the eyes” in a process she describes as “a retraining of the brain.” Some of her clients have been labeled with attention disorders “when in reality, it has only been a tracking or convergence problem.”

When reading or looking at close objects, the eyes should converge—or turn inward together to focus like a pair of binoculars—so that what you see is a single image. But for those with convergence insufficiency, the eyes are unable to work together to focus in this way. Symptoms include blurred or double vision, or headaches and corresponding issues in reading and concentration, which ultimately impact learning. Mayo Clinic researchers say that children with convergence insufficiency may benefit from treatment therapy.

Therapy also can help kids who might not be using their eyes correctly, perhaps moving their heads to read instead of their eyes. In that situation, even a child who wears glasses may find that “the words on the page can still be swimming around,” Yazzie says. “The glasses are just a band-aid.”

Screenings at school or a pediatrician’s office usually just test distance vision, leaving some children with undiagnosed problems, Cohen says. If your child is older than 7 or 8 and still uses a finger or other marker to keep his place while reading, it may indicate difficulty with visual tracking skills. Children who have decreased retention and comprehension, are particularly slow readers and/or claim to dislike reading also could have vision problems—even if they can see 20/20 at distance.

If a child starts to complain about headaches on school days, pay attention, advises Cohen. Most headaches are not related to the eyes. But a dull, throbbing headache in the forehead or temple area that comes on later in the day (and more often on school days than weekends) can be related to eyestrain and a vision problem.

Along with regular vision checks, keep young eyes healthy by using sun protection from an early age. Plenty of people know that UV rays can damage skin, says Cohen, but only about 10 percent know it can damage the eyes.

“Because a vast majority of the UV radiation we are exposed to in our lifetime occurs before age 18, protecting children’s eyes from cumulative damage from long-term UV exposure is key,” he says.

The lenses in a child’s eyes do not block as much UV radiation as the lenses of an adult, putting them at increased risk. Yet according to The Vision Council, almost 50 percent of parents report that their children “seldom” or “never” wear sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection. Children are two times more likely to wear sunscreen than sunglasses.

Sun damage may contribute to serious age-related diseases of the eye, such as cataracts, macular degeneration and cancer.

“Wearing hats with brims, or using UV-rated sunglasses is especially important in Arizona, where the sun is bright and shiny most days of the school year,” says Cohen.

Read Vicki Louk Balint’s “Health Matters” blog.

When to make an appointment

Here are some physical signs or symptoms that should prompt a visit to an eye-care professional:

  • poor judgment of depth
  • turning of an eye in or out, up or down
  • tendency to cover or close one eye, or favor the vision in one eye
  • double vision
  • poor hand-eye coordination
  • difficulty following a moving target
  • dizziness or motion sickness
  • poor reading comprehension
  • poor posture when reading or writing
  • poor handwriting
  • child can respond orally but can’t get the same information down on paper
  • letter and word reversals that continue over time
  • difficulty judging sizes and shapes

-Lynette Yazzie, Accent Eye Care

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