Back to basics
Vision—the ability to see and interpret images—offers a base for learning. About 80 percent of a child’s early learning results from seeing and interacting with the environment—color, shape, size, distance, location, and motion, for example. Naturally, then, impaired vision, while often correctable, can significantly hamper a young child’s ability to access the essential sensory information necessary for learning.
How we see
Everything we see reflects light. Light rays enter the eye through the clear outer layer called the cornea. The light passes through a hole, the pupil, which widens or narrows to control the amount of light entering. The light then passes through the lens and the vitreous humor, the liquid center of the eyeball, to the retina at the back of the eye. There a chemical reaction stimulates the optic nerve to the brain where images are interpreted—where we make meaning of what we see.
Impairments can be present at birth or develop later in life. The muscles that control the eye’s movements may be unbalanced or not function fluidly. Blurred, unfocused vision can result from cataracts or from a defect that prevents light from falling squarely on the retina. Some types of brain damage can interfere with image interpretation.
Some impairments can be corrected with surgery, exercise, eye glasses, or medication. Generally, early detection and treatment can lessen the challenges for a child with vision loss or impairment.
Vision red flags
Be attentive to obvious signs—crossed eyes, eyes that seem to be looking in different directions, pupils of different sizes, squinting, and drooping or red eyelids.
Observe how babies respond to you and others. Infants typically pay attention to someone’s face in the direct line of their vision; their eyes follow a moving person or object. Older babies indicate that they are able to recognize and respond to familiar objects. Toddlers observe and imitate your actions with objects like a phone or a ball, for example. Failure to respond according to established developmental sequence and milestones warrants closer observation and possibly intervention.
Watch for preschoolers who squint, shut one eye, tilt the head, or avoid bright lights. Note complaints of headaches or dizziness after reading or other focused hand-eye activities like puzzles or art. Be attentive to stumbling, bumping into people and furniture, groping with the hands and feet to locate things, and avoiding open spaces that don’t provide tactile guidance.
Children with vision loss differ from other children only in their ability to learn through seeing. Most activities appropriate for typically developing children are also appropriate for children with vision impairments. Rely on children’s parents and health care providers to offer specific recommendations on accommodation and support.
Use these guidelines as you include children with vision impairments or loss in all classroom activities. Focus on sensory skills—hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and seeing—to help strengthen intact sensory channels.
Provide auditory stimulation like music, bells, and, most importantly, your voice.
Use touch as often as possible. Hold babies and routinely introduce new textures and shapes. Play games with toddlers and preschoolers that encourage guessing an object’s identity by its shape, color, or sound.
Introduce new tastes and smells.
Address children by their given names; identify yourself and others similarly.
Identify classroom sounds. Talk about the sources and causes of familiar sounds like birds chirping or a train whistle and unfamiliar ones like the voice of a new teacher, a new phone ring tone, or a security alarm.
Maintain consistent room and playground arrangements. If the arrangement changes, reorient children to the new space.