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Developmental Milestones and Academic Success

Christine Zlupko, O.D.

With vision being the dominant sensory modality, it is no wonder that development of visual information processing relates to a child’s academic performance. As a child develops, he passes through periods where the sensory system integrates with the motor system and from there; perceptual development and cognitive function improve.

As a child develops, he moves through many stages which follow a universal, non-varying sequence. If this sequence is broken, if steps are missed, there may be a disconnect in proper cognitive development. Cognitive development refers to the child’s ability to obtain and use knowledge and on the thinking processes that they acquire along the way (memory, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc.) Setting up this complex system properly is critical to positioning a child for academic success.

Development is the result of a biological need to adapt to environmental demands and organize ways of thinking. Environmental demands will vary tremendously from child to child due to living conditions, physiological and social factors. Despite differences in how a child is raised and cared for, they still need to reach certain milestones to guarantee they have the framework in place for proper development.

One of the first milestones an infant reaches is gross motor development. The child learns efficient use of head, arms, legs and body and centers on motion and manipulation. As gross motor skills develop, the child is able to first move through space by rolling, crawling, standing and eventually walking. These skills are important in the child’s getting to know his own body through movement and action/reaction. Fine motor skills are developing simultaneously as the child begins grasping for objects, studying them, exploring them orally and releasing them. Eventually, the child can localize and pick up smaller objects and move and manipulate them accordingly. During this period, motor development tends to lead vision development.

Developing fine motor skills, such as picking up small objects, assists the child in improvement of visual efficiency since accommodation and vergence must be utilized. Oculomotor function is also improving during this time as the child moves toward maximum visual efficiency. As the child grows and matures, the quality and precision of saccadic eye movements improves. Refinement of this skill is imperative as a child begin learning to read. Failure to develop creates a major road block in the child’s learning process.

Visual information processing includes a group of visual cognitive skills used for extracting and organizing visual information from the environment and integrating this with other sensory modalities and higher cognitive function. If a child does not have adequate accommodative, vergence or saccadic eye movement skills, visual information processing will be poor. The child will not be able to read efficiently and therefore, not be able to extract the visual information. This can impact a student profoundly since most of the information presented in an academic setting is visual in nature.

Language development is another important stage that a child must pass through and master for effective learning. This begins during infancy with imitative behaviors and grows along with visual ability to help a child label objects and communicate their experiences. If the developmental milestones are all being met at the appropriate time periods, the child will use all of these skills to integrate incoming information. The child is then able to “visualize” what they are reading and learning. They should eventually make the shift from “learning to read “ to “reading to learn”. When a child is efficiently “reading to learn”, the sky is the limit. Proper integration of all of these skills, puts the child in a position to achieve academic success.

When a child is struggling academically, careful examination and evaluation can be done by a developmental optometrist to determine where the child is lagging developmentally. Through therapeutic intervention, we can help to remediate and strengthen those skills and maximize capacity and efficiency through appropriate visually-driven sensory integration. Vision therapy can profoundly help struggling students and help put them back on the road to achieving academic success.