With the start of a new year comes the beginning of a new school year. Many parents wonder if their child is ready to meet the academic and social expectations of grade one, the first step on the long journey of the school years. Feelings of anxiety are natural, and parents do not always have the objectivity or the knowledge to make this major decision but there are many experts in the field of early childhood development who can guide them.
Educational experts differentiate between a child's level of school readiness and the level of learning readiness. Although closely linked, these concepts are different. School readiness is based on the foundation of intellectual, motor, social, emotional and perceptual factors. To be learning ready the child needs to be able to sit still , have good listening skills, concentrate on tasks for a certain period of time, get along with others, show independence and a sense of responsibility, communicate effectively, and perhaps most importantly demonstrate an interest in learning. Learning readiness is influenced by the learning experiences to which the child has been exposed before going to school. A child may pass a school readiness test but not be ready to cope with the demands and requirements of the classroom.
No single factor determines whether a child is ready for school or not. Learning is a complex process requiring the integration and coordination of a number of skills, including physical development, cognitive abilities, communication skills, emotional maturity, hearing and vision. Children need to be competent in all these areas to be able to master the challenges of grade one. The majority of the demand at school is on the visual system. As the child progresses through school, more time is spent working on the computer, more challenging study material is presented in books and demands on the eyes increase.
Visual perception is our understanding and knowledge about the world and our environment through the information we receive via the eyes. It is made up of a number of skills which do not function independently of each other but need to work together in an integrated manner to facilitate effective learning, interpretation and response to visual stimuli.
Visual acuity - this is a measure of how clearly one is able to see at various distances. Problems that could impact academic performance include difficulty with distance vision (shortsightedness), close vision (farsightedness) or blurred vision due to an irregularly shaped cornea (astigmatism). Visual acuity is a subjective experience; the child is generally unaware that he sees differently from others and is unlikely to report difficulties with visual acuity. A visit to your optometrist for an eye examination before the child starts school is advisable to rule out or deal with visual acuity problems.
It is important to note that a child may have no problems with visual acuity but present with visual processing problems which lead to problems with certain tasks required for learning.
Visual attention - this refers to the ability to focus on important visual information.
Figure-ground - the child needs to filter out irrelevant background information while attending to relevant information, for example finding a specific word on a page.
Eye focusing - this skill is necessary for a child to be able to maintain clear vision when changing focus at different distances. Reading and writing require sustained focus, while looking at the teacher and then at a book close by requires rapid change of focus.
Eye teaming - each eye receives a slightly different image which the brain processes to create a single 3D image, enabling the child to judge depth and spatial relationships. To achieve this the eyes need to work together smoothly and accurately.
Visual motor integration - this involves the effective communication between the hands and the eyes, using visual information to direct movement of the hands in tasks such as catching a ball or the finer tasks of developing handwriting and drawing.
Form constancy - this is the ability to recognise and identify objects or shapes in different environments despite differences in their size or position, for example recognising an apple in a fruit bowl or in a picture, or a word on the TV screen or in a book.
Visual discrimination - this is an essential skill in reading, spelling and maths, as it requires the ability to compare numbers, letters and words, recognising their differences and similarities.
Visual closure - the child with visual closure skills is able to recognise a word or object when only part of it is visible, filling in the details of words or sentences without having to read each individual letter or word.
Visual spatial relationships - this involves being able to perceive where the body is in relation to oneself and others. In the classroom the child needs to know concepts such as left from right, top from bottom, where to start writing on the page, and spacing of letters and words.
Visual memory - an important skill in learning to read, this refers to recalling the details of what has been previously seen while reading or remembering what was seen before copying it into a book.
Visual sequential memory - closely related to visual memory, this is the ability to remember the correct sequence of numbers or letters, which is fundamental to spelling, reading and maths.
If a child has difficulties in any area of visual perception, he or she will find the world of learning confusing and experience problems performing tasks that most children take for granted. Academic performance will be impacted as he struggles with reading and writing, frustration may prevent him from remaining focused on a task and he may lose confidence and develop behavioural problems.
Parents know their children best. Teachers are in a position to observe a child's abilities and difficulties in relation to other children of the same age. Professional experts, including optometrists, perform assessments in specific areas to determine whether the child has the fundamental requirements for school and learning readiness. Together they are able to make an informed decision in the best interests of the child.