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Hearing and Vision Problems Can Impact Early Learning

When I was in elementary school, I was always afraid I would fail the vision test given annually in the nurse's office. So, as I waited for my turn to read the eye chart, I'd inch a little closer to memorize the tiny letters at the bottom.

It wasn't until I was 13 years old and taking a similar test for high school that I finally failed and was required to get glasses—and that happened because the chart was located on the opposite side of a gymnasium from where we waited, providing no opportunity to memorize it.

Seems like I wasn't the only one afraid to admit that I couldn't see well.

"About 1 in 10 preschoolers has a vision problem, but kids don't always tell others about their symptoms. Kids might even think it's normal to see double or for things to be blurry. But poor eyesight can cause headaches and hinder reading," says a September newsletter from the National Institutes of Health. "Some children with vision problems might seem to have attention difficulties, since eyestrain and headaches can make it hard to stay on task."

Problems with vision and hearing can translate into problems with learning and language development, especially for young children who may not be able to tell whether they aren't seeing or hearing what they should. But advances in testing mean that some problems are more likely to be diagnosed at much earlier ages, even before some start preschool.

NIH funded a study involving thousands of preschoolers to determine the best ways to screen for vision problems to help catch problems early, finding that the frequency and type of testing vary widely across the country. The study identified a few tests that worked best at detecting vision issues, according to the newsletter.

Common vision problems in kids include lazy eye, in which the eyes point in different directions; one grows stronger to make up for the weaker image produced by the other. That problem is best treated at a young age, according to NIH. Farsightedness is another common vision problem, while nearsightedness—the inability to see things farther way, such as a blackboard—is less common.

Testing for hearing problems now occurs as early as shortly after birth, when newborns are screened for hearing loss before leaving the hospital, according to the newsletter. "When problems are diagnosed, most children are fitted with hearing aids in the first few months of life," it says.

Since hearing correctly is crucial to developing language skills, NIH researchers are studying how kids who can't hear well learn to speak. Early study results have found that the "quality and fit of hearing aids, how often kids get speech and language training, and how often parents have conversations with their children" can be important factors, the newsletter said.

"Children with undetected hearing loss may look like they have attention deficits. They may miss what they've been told because they're just not hearing clearly," Dr. Mary Pat Moeller of the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska says in the newsletter.

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