Visual impediments a key factor in childhood learning difficulties

A University of Lethbridge researcher is calling for more comprehensive, and compulsory, early childhood vision assessments to help reduce potential learning and behavioural difficulties that affect children with impairments to eyesight and visual function.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Optometry and Vision Performance (, co-authors Dr. Noëlla Piquette of the University’s Faculty of Education and developmental optometrist Dr. Charles Boulet assert that visual impediments to learning (VIL) are rarely detected in common sight screenings, leading to difficulties with reading, memory, emotional awareness and impulse control in children. The resulting effect, enhanced by the greater visual demands of today’s neo-traditional classrooms, alters children’s academic outcomes, health and behaviour, leading to limited socioeconomic success and even decreased social skills.

Dr. Noella Piquette says comprehensive vision assessments should be compulsory for children to help identify problems early in their academic lives.

“Because visual input is so critical in today’s classroom settings, the presence of VIL present a real threat to learning processes and behaviour,” says Piquette. “Many children struggle against difficult vision, and yet most VIL are ignored in pediatric visual screenings. The lifetime cost of these is significant to the individual and to society.”

Evidence has long indicated that many children struggle with school in some part due to visual impairments. In today’s neo-traditional classroom, which emphasizes text-based learning through print and electronic media, vision serves as the paramount sense for discovery.

“Less than 15 per cent of students have their vision tested comprehensively, despite the fact that 80 per cent of learning is dependent on vision,” says Piquette.

By not identifying or recognizing VIL early in a child’s academic life, they come to realize a distinct disadvantage in a learning environment.

“This lack of appropriate VIL detection and management, combined with compulsory participation in a visually taxing education model for 12 years or more, may well constitute an implicit neglect of children’s health and basic human rights,” adds Piquette, whose research specializes in issues related to special education, learning disabilities, equity and diversity. “Current models of visual screening allow most significant problems to pass through as false negatives.”

One of the problems with the detection of VIL is that even in moderate and severe cases, children will most often not report visual problems because to them, what is known is what is normal.

“In many cases, undiagnosed vision problems can look like a learning disability,” says Piquette. “If these children are inaccurately labeled, whether formally or informally, their needs are not dealt with appropriately for their future success.”

Factor in that common visual conditions such as moderate to high astigmatism and hyperopia, among others, are surprisingly common, affecting as high as 35 per cent of children in some populations, it can present a major educational challenge.

“The positive that we can take away from this is that these problems can be mitigated with comprehensive visual assessment programs,” says Piquette, adding that children should not only be tested prior to Kindergarten or Grade 1, but regularly as they mature and their eyes change. “We need a protocol that detects a wider range of learning related vision problems because it has been shown that if vision is adequately managed from an early age, academic and health outcomes are greatly improved, ultimately leading to reduced long-term costs in each area.”