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Identifying Students With Visual Perceptual Problems

By Anne Vize

The child who draws right at the bottom of the page... The one who always skips lines when reading... The child who can't catch a ball... The one who does anything to avoid a pen and paper in class. What is the story behind these kids? Lazy? Bored? Clumsy? Or something more?

What Is Visual Perception?

Visual perception is the set of skills we use to interpret and make sense of the images we see with our eyes. Our eyes are controlled by sets of muscles which have to work very well, and work with each other in an organized way, to focus, change focal distance and organize an image that we see in a way that is useful to the brain. Visual perceptual skills are used in tasks such as:

  • Catching a ball
  • Judging how far or near an object is in relation to our body
  • Anticipating when a moving object will reach us
  • Reading print along a line and then moving to the next line on the page
  • Organizing a drawing on paper
  • Identifying fine differences between letters (b and d, for example)
  • Tracking a moving object as it travels along its path

For some children, their visual perceptual skills are not working as well as they should do, and this can cause all manner of problems in the classroom.

So What Can Teachers Do?

Teachers can help in several very important ways with children who may have visual perceptual problems. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Realize that as a teacher, you do not have the skills to diagnose a visual perceptual problem in a child, but that you can identify potential problems and refer appropriately.
  2. Don't dismiss children who have difficulties with reading, movement skills or organisation of materials and objects as being simply clumsy and don't accept that this is "just how some kids are."
  3. Set aside some time in the school year to pay close attention to the visual skills of every child in your class, and take observational notes about how they perform on visually based activities such as copying a shape, doing a dot to dot, drawing a picture, reading a page of text, following a torch light (flash light) as it moves across a wall, or catching or throwing a ball.
  4. Talk to others in your teaching team about children for whom you have concerns - is the same child a concern to others too?
  5. Realize that not every reading problem can be fixed through using a different reading instructional method (for example, switching to synthetic phonics or a whole word approach) - sometimes the problem is far deeper than that.
  6. Refer children about whom you are worried to a family doctor, school nurse, optometrist or behavioral optometrist for further assessment. Provide the family with information about what you have observed in class and why this is of concern to you as a teacher.
  7. Work with a behavioral optometrist where an assessment has been made to learn the best ways to work with a child with visual perceptual problems.

Not every child that you have concerns about will turn out to have a visual perceptual problem, but if you can at least pick up those who do before they are too far advanced in their school years, you will have done them a great service in terms of their future ability to learn and be the best that they can be.