I have been receiving a bit of mail regarding visual therapy and what to do about visual challenges, so I thought I would address that topic here.
Waldorf Education, both in school and in homeschooling, is often known as “that method where the children learn to read late.” This is true in one sense, as we start academics directly in first grade the way many schools in Europe used to do, and the progression through the first few grades is slower than what we might be accustomed to in the United States in public school. In fact, it is true that many Waldorf teachers find children, especially boys, do not become fluent writers and readers until ages 9-11. Many of these children are active, healthy, normal children.
However, I want to look at this a little closer for homeschoolers. Noted Master Waldorf teacher Eugene Schwartz has stated in many of his lectures that two-thirds of a third grade Waldorf School classroom typically is reading at a third grade level. If this is true, then one must believe that there is progress in the first few grades toward reading. Progress toward reading includes movement with cross lateral integration (more about that in a minute), oral recitation with memory, writing and then reading is being made in first, second and third grade, if the parent is working with the child in a Waldorf way.
The corollary of this, is of course, that if this is true that the majority of children in third grade are reading at grade level, then we also know one-third of the class will not be reading at grade level by the end of third grade. In Waldorf homeschooling communities, we often hear of children who were not reading, not reading, and then suddenly around the age of 11 or 12 or so the child can suddenly read everything and anything.
So the challenge for the homeschooling parent often becomes one of – is this just a normal pace of development for this particular child and I just need to leave it alone or – is there something going on that needs to be addressed earlier?
I think to answer this question we must first look at “normal”. If “normal” is our baseline, it helps us to see if development is happening and just going slowly, or if there is really something else going on. Susan Johnson, anthroposophic M.D. recounts this process in her article, “Teaching Our Children to Write, Read and Spell” (the bold is my addition to draw your attention):
Forcing children to write, read, and spell and giving them “standardized” tests before they are developmentally ready, will stress their nervous systems. Furthermore, children will dislike reading and will not want to go to school. If we insist on pushing writing, reading and spelling before the children’s minds are ready, we will continue to create an epidemic of behavior and learning difficulties, especially in our boys.
First grade is the time to introduce lots of form drawing, learn the capital letters as pictures that children can draw, and practice cursive writing by drawing each small case letter in a repetitive series (eg. drawing the cursive form of “c” ,over and over like the waves of the ocean). Over the next year or two, as the majority of children in the classroom strengthen their proprioceptive skills and integrate their right and left hemispheres (as evidenced by their ability to stand on one foot with their eyes closed, remember the shapes that are drawn on their backs, jump rope forward and backwards by themselves, and easily perform the cross lateral skip), the children can be more formally taught to read, spell, and print the lower case letters.
It is time to remove the desks from kindergartens and preschools. Our preschools and kindergartens need to fill their curriculculms with play consisting of lots of sensory intergration activities that will strengthen fine motor movements, visual motor abilities, balance, muscle tone, proprioception, as well as strengthen children’s social and emotional development. Activities like imaginary play, climbing, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, walking the balance beam, playing circle games, singing, playing catch, doing meaningful chores, painting, coloring, playing hand clapping games, doing string games, and fingerknitting will strengthen their minds for learning. Children need these healthy, harmonious, rhythmic, and non-competitive movements to develop their brains.
This article in its entirety can be found here: http://www.youandyourchildshealth.org/youandyourchildshealth/articles/teaching%20our%20children.html.
So, I think first and foremost we need to observe our child: do they have cross-lateral movement? Do they skip with the same side arm forward and the same side knee up or do they skip with left knee up, right arm forward, for example? How is their balance and sense of where they are in space? Do they fall a lot, do they typically fall and injure one side when they fall? These things are often noted as part of a screening regarding first grade readiness in Waldorf Schools, but as Susan Johnson notes, some of these things can also be developing up until and through the nine-year change.
You can see an article about laying the foundation of movement here:
If the movement basis is there, my next thought for children in the grades is yes, look at the eyes and vision. Many children test “normal” on a standard eye chart kind of test, but still have issues of convergence or other things. In a grades aged child, watch the child. Can the child knit? Can the child crochet? What is that like? What about simple household tasks such as pouring juice or other tasks involving depth perception? Auditory cues are also a part of depth perception that we often use and do not think about. What is hearing like? What is speech like? Is there a speech delay?
The best screening for visual challenges in children of grades age (and there is a section on driving, so this screening could also apply to teens as well) that I have found is here: http://www.cookvisiontherapy.com/childrens_screening.html I have shared this 100 question screening tool with parents across the country, even though this vision center happens to be in my state.
The “physical complaints” section of this screening really has many of the red flags for visual challenges, which often are overlooked by a standard eye test chart. Headaches or stomachaches whilst doing school work, frequent car sickness, complaining of eye strain or rubbing eyes during school work, complaining that print is too small (remember, these are children with “normal” vision on an eye chart), words that run together or overlap (and this can be hard for children to say if this is happening, because if they have never been able to see without double vision or overlapping, they do not know what normal looks like! Observe, watch!), holding paper and moving it in and out, constantly tilting the head – these are all good signs of visual challenge, especially when coupled with receiving a “whole picture” by also including the answers to the other sections on this screening tool.
The next place to look after vision and hearing is the sort of “red flags” for overall development and comprehension. Possible “red flags” noted in the “Living Language: A Language Arts Curriculum for Grades 1-5” by Christopherus Homeschool Resources include such things as having no interests, making no eye contact, the inability to play alone, poor creative play, never spontaneously telling stories or sharing anecdotes, and other things such as trying to read and not being able to keep his or her place. There are more in this list on pages 258-59, and I believe this list is also included within the syllabus pages of the Christopherus curriculum.
I will concentrate more on what to do with visual challenges in Part Two of this post.
Thanks for reading and many blessings,