If you’re the parent of a school-age child, it’s time once again to compile that all-important back-to-school checklist to ensure he or she isn’t lacking any vital supplies as the new academic year gets underway. But as you jot down items such as pens, pencils, markers, scissors, crayons, notebooks, folders, and new gym shoes, don’t forget to add a comprehensive eye exam to the list.
Why does an eye exam belong on a school-supply checklist? The reason is quite simple: Good vision and healthy eyes are more important to a child’s learning than any supply you can squeeze into a backpack. Unfortunately, many children fail to receive a comprehensive eye exam before beginning school. As a result, vision problems frequently go undetected, and that can translate directly into poor academic performance.
Learning is largely a visual process, with lessons being presented not just through print, but also computers, tablets, smart boards, PowerPoint projectors, and other media. When it’s difficult for a child to see clearly what’s presented through these media, it’s easy to become frustrated and distracted and ultimately fall behind. Even athletics and other after-school activities can suffer. After all, it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball when you can’t see clearly or your eyes don’t track as they should.
“The role of good vision in school performance is often understated or taken for granted,” says Preston Linley, OD, of ProMedica Physicians Eye Care. “Parents need to be aware that poor vision places a lot of barriers in kids’ way, academically, athletically and even socially. However, good vision doesn’t just happen. It has to be learned, like walking, talking or hitting a baseball.”
Vision problems tend to develop gradually over time, so kids are often unaware that they have them and just think their vision is normal. They may also subconsciously attempt to compensate for the impairment and/or avoid situations that challenge their vision.
Because kids are likely to be unaware of vision issues, Dr. Linley advises parents and teachers to be on the lookout for the following symptoms that might indicate a child has a vision problem:
- Avoiding up-close tasks or activities
- Holding reading materials too close or consistently sitting too close to the television
- Using a finger to follow along or losing their place when reading
- Frequently squinting, tilting the head, or closing one eye to see better
- Frequently complaining of headaches or tired eyes
- Frequently blinking or rubbing the eyes
- Exhibiting a short attention span or poor hand-to-eye coordination.
When it comes to protecting your child’s vision, it’s much better to be proactive than reactive, so Dr. Linley recommends scheduling a child’s first comprehensive eye exam sometime between the ages of two and five. If his or her vision is normal, another exam should be performed at age six and then every one to two years thereafter. “I’m a proponent of yearly exams because kids’ bodies change so quickly and that includes their eyes,” he adds.
But aren’t those vision screenings performed by the school nurse sufficient? Don’t bet your child’s eye health and academic performance on it. While screenings can be a helpful tool in detecting possible vision impairment, it takes an experienced eye-care practitioner to catch certain serious eye-health problems that a simple vision screening might overlook. “Vision screenings are great, but they shouldn’t be considered a substitute for comprehensive exams. The purpose of an exam isn’t just to determine whether a child needs corrective lenses for nearsightedness or farsightedness, but also to evaluate his or her eye movement and coordination, ability to focus, depth and color perception, and many other factors that can affect school or athletic performance. Also, many health problems that affect the body can also affect the eyes, so the examining doctor will look for evidence of disease, such as tumors or eye complications related to diabetes,” says Dr. Linley.
Of course, vision or eye-health issues can arise at any age, so Dr. Linley advocates making the annual eye exam a family affair. “Parents can develop vision problems too, so why not schedule comprehensive eye exams for the entire family? It can be a fun experience for everyone.”❦