Breaking down vision: Why do children have trouble learning to read?
When you put the key into the ignition of your automobile and start it up, your primary concerns at that point are limited to the tasks associated with driving: Is the tank full? Is the speed correct for the road? Is the windshield clear? Do you need to change lanes? Notice that none of this has anything to do with how the automobile actually works. As drivers, we don’t need to know how the car works, but we can recognize that underlying the relatively simple task of driving, there is a complex machine comprised of thousands of parts. Any defects in the individual parts or how they are put together can and will impact negatively upon the performance of the car.
‘Vision’ as an active process of searching out information from the environment, is a tremendously complex process, and yet deceptively simple: You open your eyes. But, like the car, underlying this simplicity is an extraordinarily complex ‘machine’ where the parts must not only be in great shape, but they must also interact with one another within a very small margin of tolerances.
Our learning assessments consider the following factors. Where remediation is possible, we either provide solutions or refer to other medical and therapeutic specialties. This list covers significant elements, but the discussion is in no way a comprehensive discourse.
• Health: We cannot assume that a child who is having trouble learning to read and write is in good health. There are many medical conditions that can lead to trouble with focus and attention, and these need to be addressed first before any remedial/therapeutic efforts can be reasonably justified. In later years, puberty and the physiological changes it brings can be very distracting indeed. Let’s also not forget the need for and benefit from regular exercise which has been shown to help focus efforts and clear thinking. Finally, environmental pollutants and toxins from smoke, upholstery/carpet, aerosol sprays, food additives, ‘disinfectants’, plastics, and vehicle and industrial exhaust all contribute to a child’s poor health.
• Nutrition: People, in general, function best when well fed. Children in particular require greater quantities of appropriate nutrients for growth and proper neurological and neuromuscular development. Furthermore, some foods are more appropriate for maintaining good focus and attention in the classroom. Some foods, such as refined sugars and starches lead to fatigue, inattention, and listlessness. Some have suggested that supplements can be helpful in some cases (DHA, omega oils) but strong evidence for this is hard to come by.
• Environment: Acute and persistent trouble in the child’s home and neighborhood can and will weigh heavily in the thoughts of a child. While these can’t often be remedied, an understanding can be helpful in guiding therapy, and often times a simple acknowledgment of the challenges at home can be helpful to focus efforts. Too much exposure to passive activities (especially television) has been shown to limit intellectual growth, and the constant barrage of changing sounds and images of video games, movies, and cartoons can artificially change a child’s expectations of what the world has to offer, and what they should expect in the way of stimulation. A look inside modern toy stores reveals a plethora of single-purpose toys with little creative play value, that is, room for divergent thought. Lego kits, for example, are so specific as to disallow much more than the building of the intended structure (generally some reproduction of an element from a popular film). At the same time, parents in a hurry to turn their children into ‘geniuses’ push advanced toys onto their children and are satisfied when the child seems to ‘remember’ some words by sight, calling this ‘reading’; ironically, many of these electronic toys are designed to promote language learning, but fail to address the underlying mental and physical processes required for true ability in language acquisition.
• Social Reasons: This again speaks to the distractibility of the child. Bullying, distractions with friends, concerns about intimate (boy/girl) interactions, concerns with fashion, and many others can easily dominate a child’s thoughts, taking them a million miles from the academic tasks set before them.
• Sleep Patterns: Children function optimally when on a regular schedule. Loose scheduling of sleep leads to variability in energy and attention levels in the daytime. Poor sleep also leads to emotional lability, which not only distracts the student in the classroom, but will also encourage conflict between child and parent, feeding a vicious cycle of negative energy in the home. Again, proper nutrition is ultimately helpful in managing sleep cycles.
• Lack of Good Modeling: Parents too often abrogate their rights to instruct their children in the home, expecting that it will all be dealt with through the public schools. I have often said to my clients that the best things you can do to ensure childrens’ success in school is to read to them, every night, even if they don’t understand what is being read. (Though it’s best if the content is interesting and approachable, if not a little challenging.) Sentences should be read with the finger pointing to words as they are encountered, and some words should be taught to the child where possible. I will return to this in a later article regarding highly effective yet modest approaches to ensuring a child’s success in school.
We will continue this discussion in the next article.