In”sight” Into Handwriting Struggles
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
Visual Perception and Learning
One of the most important skills involved in learning is Vision. Vision is our ability to “see color, detect motion, identify shapes, gauge distance and speed, and judge the size of faraway objects….(it) is more than recording what meets the eye: it’s the ability to understand, almost instantaneously, what we see. And that happens in the brain.” (1)
The eye and its relationship to the brain is complex. The brain “learns” about our environment through the information we receive with our eyes and the visual experiences we have had in the world. Movement experiences help the brain to understand speed, balance, and distances as it separates movement that happens outside of our body from that which happens when we move our head. Experiences that gather information about directional concepts, such as back and front, up and down, right and left, provide the brain with information that distinguishes objects from their backgrounds, as well as those that are far from the ones that are near. This is the brain’s Visual Perception. It uses these perceptions to guide our movements and reactions. As information is transmitted via light that passes through the retina, the brain sorts out the relevant information and uses “short cut assumptions” about their meaning – the smaller item in the horizon is farther away than the larger one. All of this in the blink of an eye.
However, as powerful as the brain is, it can be fooled by its own “misperceptions.” The brain relies upon the information it has gathered from the moment a baby first opens his eyes and it begins the visual perceptual process of “converting light into ideas.” (2) This visual experience turns on the learning process and vision continues to foster it throughout our lives. When our visual skills are efficient, our brain interprets the world and our experiences efficiently. However, when our visual skills are inefficient, the brain utilizes inaccurate information to form “misperceptions” about what we see. Our vision tricks our brain, sort of like an Optical Illusion, by providing it with a knowledge base that is not accurate. And like a computer, “garbage in becomes garbage out.”
Visual Perception and Handwriting
Vision is a collection of 17 skills that children need to succeed in school. Visual Perception is just one of them. But, as with the other 16 vision skills, it plays a key role in the learning process – and that includes handwriting mastery. Visual Perception Skills allow children to:
- understand directional concepts such as top-to-bottom and left-to-right;
- recall correct letter formations quickly;
- recognize letter formations in different contexts, such as in their workbooks, in a book, or on the board;
- align their letters and words correctly on their paper;
- locate letters and words on a page or on the board; and
- complete handwritten work in a legible and timely manner.
When a student is struggling with these areas of handwriting mastery, chances are there may be a visual culprit behind it. When extra practice doesn’t seem to work, it’s wise to collect some information that will provide some in”sight” into the problem. A quick vision review can help determine if a visit to a medical professional is warranted. It is easy to conduct a vision review at home or in school simply by observing a child’s “behaviors:”
- how he buttons his coat
- how he holds a book
- how he walks down the hall
- how he plays on the jungle gym
As you observe his movements in everyday life situations, you can use these handy vision checklists to uncover behaviors that indicate the possible existence of a vision problem:
If you find that you’ve checked two or three of the items on a checklist, it would be wise to consult with your child’s pediatrician about a referral to a Developmental Optometrist.
What is a Developmental Optometrist?
What’s a Developmental Optometrist? And why should you seek a referral to one? In order to answer these questions, it’s important that we first discuss the distinction between the three significant members of an “Eye Team:”
- Ophthalmologist: This is a Medical or Osteopathic Doctor who is trained and specializes in eye and vision care. They diagnose and treat all eye diseases, perform eye surgery, and prescribe and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses.
- Optometrists: This member of the Eye Team has a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree and provides vision care, with services ranging from eyesight evaluation to the diagnosis, treatment, and management of vision changes. They also prescribe and fit glasses and contact lenses.
- Opticians: The third member of the team fills prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists and optometrists. They are trained to design, verify, and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses, and other devices to correct eyesight.
A Developmental Optometrist is an OD who has undergone further study and training to provide eye care that specializes in proper visual development. They are trained to evaluate and treat underdeveloped skills such as eye focusing, tracking, and binocularity. They may also provide vision therapy services to treat conditions such as amblyopia (lazy eye), convergence insufficiency, and eye focusing difficulties. They usually join the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD), and after passing rigorous testing, conducting extra research, and publishing case studies, they can become a fellow of the COVD and obtain the title FCOVD.
Their specialized training in vision assessment and rehabilitation provides Developmental Optometrists with the skills to address a child’s visual development and to determine if their educational struggles are vision-related. They are the key link between efficient visual perception and learning.
So, if your handwriting “struggler” is:
- Having difficulty with movement sequences, such as Simon Says;
- Walking on his toes frequently;
- Holding her crayons or pencils awkwardly, sometimes switching hands;
- Leaning on his hand, resting his head on the table, or leaning close to his work at his desk; and/or
- Rubbing her eyes or forehead, putting her hands over her eyes periodically during close work, or squinting or blinking frequently,
then visual perceptional “misperceptions” may be standing in the way of handwriting success. And often, these same “misperceptions” are the underlying causes of school difficulties in general.
Isn’t it worth taking a look into our Vision Handouts? You just may find a new perception there!
As always, thank you for reading! I hope you will share your comments, experiences, and suggestions with us!Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.