Smart in Everything But School

Published September 3, 2020

Author: Dr. Denise Smith

The Center for Vision Development, Austin TX

Do you know a child who is smart in everything but school? 

These children usually appear to meet all the developmental milestones on time and may even have advanced language or motor skills. Then, little by little it starts to become obvious that the child is not performing at the expected level, or even falls below age/grade level.

Parents are perplexed. Teachers are perplexed.

Often, even doctors are perplexed and cannot explain why the child is not succeeding despite his/her high intellectual ability. Occasionally, vision may be considered as a culprit. However, most of the time, the child passes the school and pediatrician vision screenings presenting a false sense of security that his/her vision is well developed.

It is estimated that one in four school-age children have an undiagnosed vision problem that impedes learning. 

In many cases, the child has “20/20” visual acuity but has deficiencies in the functional vision skills such as:

  • Visual tracking
  • Eye teaming
  • Visual focusing or
  • Visual processing

These are not routinely screened in school vision screenings or even in a traditional eye exam.

Signs that a child may have undiagnosed deficiencies in their functional vision skills:

  • Blurry or fluctuating vision
  • Headaches
  • Double vision
  • Words appearing to move on the page

Other symptoms can include:

  • Skipping words/lines while reading
  • Loss of place while reading
  • Difficulty writing
  • Confusing letters or words
  • Difficulty sustaining reading or writing
  • Difficulty maintaining attention
  • Poor reading comprehension

Ultimately, if these symptoms persist, the child may begin to avoid reading and learning tasks altogether.

In some cases, these visual deficiencies prevent advancement of reading and learning, and the child may be suspected to have a learning disability or dyslexia. 

In other cases, the child may actually be a “good reader” but just doesn’t like to read.

And yet in other cases, the child begins to exhibit negative behaviors that may mimic attention deficit type disorders or require disciplinary action. Any of these situations can adversely affect the child’s self-esteem because his/her true potential is not realized.

Vision comprises over 20 different skills. These skills are learned and developed just like walking and talking. A critical time for vision development is between 6 and 12 months of age. Therefore, it is recommended that a baby’s first eye exam happen during this time.

Subsequently, other skills like eye teaming, visual tracking, eye-hand coordination, and visual processing skills are extensively developed during the toddler and pre-school years, and then are further refined as the child starts school and begins to utilize these skills for more advanced tasks.

The child has no reference to know whether or not the visual skills are developing appropriately, so symptoms usually go unreported and deficiencies may go undetected or misdiagnosed for years. The child may start to feel “stupid” despite the fact he/she is very smart, and parents and teachers often begin to think the child is just “lazy”.

For this reason, a comprehensive functional vision exam should be at the top of the list when considering school readiness. Years of struggling may be prevented when vision development is thoroughly assessed prior to starting a formal academic program.