July 20, 2022/Children's Health

Do Kids Need Back-to-School Eye Exams?

Plan on an annual vision screening, but a full exam may not be necessary

kid getting an eye exam

As your child prepares to start another school year, don’t forget to take care of one of their most important learning tools — their eyes.

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Regular vision screenings and exams are critical for children as they advance through school, says pediatric ophthalmologist Allison Babiuch, MD. Research consistently shows a strong connection between vision and academic performance.

“When it comes to your child’s eyes, being proactive is important,” says Dr. Babiuch.

So, let’s take a closer look at the issue.

Vision and learning

About 80% of learning involves your eyes, whether it’s through reading, writing or watching a video screen. Given that, an uncorrected vision problem can be a significant health barrier to learning (HBL).

Eye issues such as myopia (nearsightedness) or eye strain can make it more difficult for young students to follow along and understand classroom lessons, notes Dr. Babiuch.

Children with undetected vision disorders who struggle in class can even be misdiagnosed with learning disabilities or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the American Optometric Association.

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How often should children get their eyes checked?

Children should have their vision screened annually, says Dr. Babiuch. A screening is a fairly brief assessment that can indicate a potential vision issue. It can be done by a pediatrician, family doctor or nurse at regular well-check visits.

Screenings could include a:

  • Distance vision test, where your child reads letters off a chart on the other side of the room.
  • Close-up vision test, where your child reads small text from a card held close to their face.
  • Color-blindness test, where colored numbers or symbols are within a background of multicolored dots.
  • Stereopsis (or stereo) test, where three-dimensional (3D) vision is tested with special glasses.

If a screening detects a potential issue, a more thorough eye exam should be scheduled with an ophthalmologist or optometrist. Most children don’t need an annual eye exam vs. a screening. (More on that in a moment.)

Do schools offer vision screenings?

The answer to this question depends upon where you live in the United States. A review of state vision screening programs for school-aged children found that 41 states offer some type of assessment.

But researchers found that the method and frequency of those screenings vary widely. Only six states, for instance, require a vision screening annually or every other year. Screenings are most common in elementary school.

Signs of vision trouble in kids

Will kids tell you if they’re having trouble seeing? They could … but how often do young children really share information like that? Or even recognize vision issues enough to know there may be a problem?

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That’s why Dr. Babiuch recommends asking your child questions and watching for behavioral changes that may signal vision trouble. For example:

  • Talk to your child about their new classroom or where they’re sitting to gauge whether they’re having issues seeing.
  • Ask them whether their eyes ever feel tired after watching something on a screen.
  • Watch for blinking, squinting and tearing of their eyes.
  • Pay attention to headaches or fatigue.

Academic troubles also may point toward vision issues. “Pay particular attention to their reading development,” says Dr. Babiuch.

When should children get a full eye exam?

An annual comprehensive eye exam isn’t always necessary for children, says Dr. Babiuch. However, plan on regular visits for your child to see an ophthalmologist or optometrist if:

  • Your child wears glasses or contacts. “Prescriptions should be rechecked annually,” notes Dr. Babiuch.
  • There’s a family history of pediatric eye disease.
  • Your child has a systemic medical condition that might affect vision.

In addition, you’ll want to schedule an appointment if your child develops crossed or wandering eyes. Ditto for drooping of their eyelid. “These may indicate other eye problems that can affect vision development, so you’ll want an exam,” emphasizes Dr. Babiuch.

And, as mentioned previously, try to get your child in to see an eye doctor if they fail a vision screen.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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