A Mom, an educator, and now, a vision therapist. In her own words….

There are so many people I am thankful for on this fine Thanksgiving day!  But near the top of the work list is Sherry Wagner.  She is the author of the piece you’re about to read, and when your done, you will know why I am so thankful I get to work with many people of this caliber. She and her co-workers make Bowersox Vision Center such a great place for kids that need help and for me to be a doctor.  So, let’s get to our Thanksgiving word feast!  DB

They say life is more about the journey and less about the destination.  My journey is far from over—but I have had some interesting twists and turns.

I am a teacher.  For nearly half my life, I have spent my days helping children reach their fullest potential.  It is who I am.  It’s what I do.  I am extremely dedicated.  My career began nearly twenty years ago.  If I did the math correctly, I have worked with more than 400 children.  I’ve taught preschool, kindergarten, first, third and seventh grade.  I’ve worked with the brightest to the most challenged and seemingly everything in between.  I enjoy laying the foundation for children to both discover and reach their potential.  I love watching their reaction when they realize they can do something they once viewed “impossible”.

I am also a wife and mother.  I try to do all I can for my family.  Their success in the routine of daily life brings me joy.  I am dedicated.  When my children started experiencing frustrations in school, I was “on it”!  I sought out answers and advice and help.  I wanted my children to love school and thoroughly enjoy their school experience.  More than that, I wanted them to view themselves as capable, lifelong learners.  That being said, I also knew, from the time my children were very young, they were “wired differently”.  I also knew that one day it would be one of their greatest assets.  However, in the here and now, I was painfully aware they were working far too hard for the level of success they encountered.  I spent a huge amount of time and resources trying to find the right formula to help them meet their fullest potential.  My son struggled with academic success in Kindergarten.  He was gathering all of the necessary parts to become an independent reader…yet lacked the ability to link the information together.  He tried…every day.  Every day he just couldn’t do what he was asked to do.  Yes, he knew his letters and all of his sounds.  Somehow, connecting that information with written word was beyond his scope of ability.  I couldn’t make sense of it.  My son went through a full battery of educational and psychological assessments in Kindergarten.  He was labeled ADHD and put on medication.  Beyond that, he was determined to be of “average to above average intelligence”.   No one could explain his learning struggles.  Meaningful, productive answers were hard to find.  Many highly educated people told me they simply “didn’t know how to help”.  I was devastated.  I was angry.  However, I wouldn’t give up my search for help.

Then, one night as my son sat on my lap to read a story to me, I noticed he tipped his head to the side and would skip every third word.  I knew his understanding of what he read as well as his love of stories was undoubtedly profoundly impacted by this.  I called our eye doctor and made an appointment to see if there was a problem.  I am so glad I made that call!  I found out my little boy indeed had a visual problem.  I know there are no words that I can use at this moment that will adequately express what I felt that day sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing him tell me that my son could only see written words clearly for a few seconds.  My little boy that loves to be read to could not even read a book from beginning to end without working harder than most of us would be willing to do.  He lacked the control in his eyes to move from word to word.  Fluency was nonexistent.  In one respect, I was devastated.  I couldn’t imagine what daily life was like for him.  On the other hand, I was thrilled!  I finally had an answer. Additionally, I had a solution!  That solution: Vision Therapy.

As the doctor began to tell me about vision therapy, I was intrigued, confused and somewhat skeptical.  I was also open to ANYTHING.  My son started therapy and we had homework sessions several times a week.  I wish I could tell you he was a model student and always did his homework willingly and to the best of his ability.  Even more than that, I wish I could tell you I was the perfect mother and that I always approached his VT homework with a smile and amazing attitude.  I can’t!  Truthfully, it was hard work.  I had to fight him to get it done.  There were times even I didn’t want to do homework.  We trudged through it with less than the best attitude most days.  One day, as we were doing these “exercises” I couldn’t really understand the purpose for…it happened!  We were standing in the kitchen looking at big colored eyeballs taped all around the pantry door.  He was supposed to be moving his gaze from colored eye to colored eye as I called out the various colors.  I mean to tell you we have been doing this activity for what felt like FOREVER and the boy just couldn’t move his eyes without moving his head.  Until that very moment in time.  I watched him suddenly move his gaze from colored eyeball to colored eyeball with zero head movement and (in my opinion) a ton of control.  It was exactly what the therapist said would happen “eventually”.  Needless to say…at least one of us was thrilled to go to therapy the following week!  As he progressed through therapy, I started to see the changes in his ability to read and ultimately his attitude toward school.  Finally, the pieces were starting to come together and my little boy was able to work to his fullest potential.  As a mother, that is all I have ever wanted for him.  Ultimately, my son graduated from VT.  His handprint on the wall of the VT center is a visual reminder to all who walk down the stairs that success IS possible.

As an educator, I personally was very curious about what was going on during vision therapy.  I met with the doctor and asked a ton of questions.  The offer was made for me to come in on Tuesday nights and “observe” if I was willing.  I was willing!  I was impressed with what I saw.  I was also upset that more educators are not aware of what is going on in vision therapy.  Before long, I had been “volunteering” for a year.  I had grown to love the kids that came in for therapy. Their successes meant as much to me as that moment standing in the kitchen when I knew my son just tackled the mountain before him.

As time progressed, I was offered a job as a full time vision therapist.  This of course would mean leaving my job as a teacher.  I love being a teacher.  I have always loved my job!  At first I wouldn’t even entertain this idea.  After all I am a “teacher”.  It’s who I am.  It’s what I do.  However, the more I thought about it…the more I realized being a vision therapist is very much like being a teacher.

So, I made the decision to leave the school setting.  My classroom looks a bit different these days.  No, I don’t have bulletin boards to create, no I don’t walk kids to the lunchroom and special areas as I once did.  I am still a teacher.  I am still helping children.  I am meeting the child where they are…I am giving them the skills and abilities to meet their fullest potential.  I still can enjoy their reaction when they realize they can do something they once thought impossible.  My title may have changed from “teacher” to “vision therapist”, but I am still and educator.  It’s who I am.  It’s what I do.

This has definitely been an interesting twist in the journey of life, but I am excited about the change.  I am excited to get busy doing “what I do”.

Thanks so much Sherry!

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A Sit Down – with Dr. Dan Bowersox

I was interviewed by Robert Nurisio for his blog VTWorks. It was an honor to be asked to have a “sit down” and I think it turned out great! Many thanks Robert!

VT Works

This post appears as part of a series called Sit Down – candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.

A Sit Down – with Dr. Dan Bowersox

DAN 

For the benefit of our readers, can you explain how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?

I have been in private practice since 1995 in Shelbyville, KY where I am in a modified solo practice.  Modified in that I am a Residency Supervisor for Southern College of Optometry and thus I share my practice with a Resident Doctor while they are here.  My office is also an external rotation site for Indiana University, so we have 4 externs for 3 months each at our site.  I am a fellow of COVD, a member of OEP and NORA.  I have been fortunate enough to go on 2 SVOSH mission trips and plan on more in the future.

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Kindergarten, your “summer kid”, and how to improve the odds of success.

We are all worried about how our kids will do that first day of kindergarten.   Will they do okay?  Will they make new friends?  Will the other kids be nice? Will my kid be nice?!? Will there be a teacher that is a great fit for my child?  And a million more questions.  Maybe those aren’t the most important questions we should be asking.  Perhaps kindergarten shouldn’t happen quite as quickly as some of us would think.  For those “summer kids” that will turn 5 years old this July, August or September, and are currently planning on attending kindergarten this fall, you may want to look at some of the statistics first!

Kids born in July, August and September are at a serious disadvantage if they start kindergarten when they are barely 5 years old.  Since they are nearly a year younger than their classmates that were born in October thru December, they as are not as developed.  Now, if you haven’t been in a school for a while, kindergarten is not the same as it was even 15 years ago!  With the increased demand to raise scores, many school systems have been forced to add developmentally inappropriate subject matter into the kindergarten class; the subject matter is simply too advanced for some of the students.  A 5 year old boy has the same language skills developmentally as a 3 ½ year old girl.[i]  So, why do we think he could read as well as his female classmates?  The Gisell Institute, a world leader in pediatric development, states: “Children cannot be pushed to develop faster and sooner, yet many schools are promoting a “push-down” curriculum today making kindergartens across the county look more like first grade. Child development must be respected to ensure that children are ready for their role as adults in the 21st century global society.”[ii]  They continue: “Children should not be punished, chastised, or belittled during these early years if they don’t meet some standards according to the time frame. It is not that the child “can’t” learn it, it is rather “not yet.” Child development cannot be mandated to happen in a certain year.”

What happens when students fall behind in schooling?  They don’t appear to be as intelligent.  “September-born students are nearly 90% more likely to be identified with special educational needs than October-born student”[iii] This continues even after kindergarten.  At age 11 these summer kids are 5.6% more likely to be labeled as having “special needs.”  They are 6% more likely to be bullied, possibly due to not being as mature or as big as the other kids in their class.  The same study found that summer kids were over 11% more likely to have problems with standardized testing later in their schooling.[iv] How big is this effect?  The lowest 20% of students (the bottom of the class) based on season of birth at kindergarten level, shows why summer kids are more likely to be in special needs classes.  The autumn kids accounted for 20% of the underachievers.  Of the kids having significant trouble in class, 31% were spring kids.  How did the summer kids do?  Almost half (49%) of the kids in the bottom 20% of the class were summer kids!  This means they are twice as likely to be in the bottom of the class when compared to other students.  (School researchers broke this down to the 3 seasons in a school.  Fall, spring and summer semesters.  Thus winter was split between fall and spring.) 

The problem also crosses economic lines.  For the girls, there was a consistent 6% gap between fall and summer girls.  But the summer boys with the free or reduced lunch were 39% below the fall girls that didn’t receive free or reduced lunches in reading.[v]  So, the summer kid effect is magnified if you are a boy from a less affluent household.

Remembering that boys are not as advanced in language skills as the girls are at age 5, what happens when they are not developmentally ready for the things that are being taught?  They lose interest in what is going on, or in other words, they have a deficit of attention for what is being taught.  Who wouldn’t lose attention when the topic being taught every day is above your ability to understand?  Put most of us in an advanced Mandarin Chinese class, and we will all have a “deficit of attention,” too.  How does this affect the summer kids, and especially boys?  In a study of nearly 938,000 children in Canada, Morrow and his research team found, “Boys who were born in September were 30% more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys born in October.  Girls born in September were 70% more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than girls born in October.[vi] *   Morrow’s main finding was for children from age 6 to 12, those “born during the month preceding the province’s cut-off date for entry to school, are typically the youngest and least mature within their grade, and are at a higher risk for treatment and diagnosis of ADHD.”  Critics would say, “That is just one study, and yes, it had nearly a million test subjects, but again, it is just one study.”  However, there are other studies.  Dr. Helga Zoega and her team of researchers also found in a study of 10,000 students an increased risk for academic problems and a 50% increase in the likelihood of treatment for ADHD.  What was Dr. Zoega’s conclusion? “Relative age among classmates affects children’s academic performance into puberty, as well as their risk of being prescribed stimulants for ADHD. This should be taken into account when evaluating children’s performance and behavior in school to prevent unnecessary stimulant treatment.”[vii] [viii]

Are these affects limited to kindergarten?  Again, sadly, no.  The Nuffeild Foundation found that summer kids are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as underage smoking at younger ages.  They were also slightly more at risk to not graduate from high school.

Everyone knows winning in sports is more fun.  How can we help our summer kid to enjoy winning more often?  Can we give them a fair, competitive advantage when it comes to sports?  It turns out, yes, we can!  By postponing kindergarten for a year, you will produce an older, larger, stronger, more mature athlete when your summer kid hits middle and high school.  It is true across all sports, and academics as well.  This effect is called “The Matthew Effect.”   (From Matthew 25:29).  “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” The Matthew Effect “is true across just about any sport at a high-level. It was reportedly first observed in the mid-1980′s by a Canadian psychologist named Roger Barnsley. He noticed that a disproportionately high percentage of high-level ice-hockey players were born in the first few months of the year, and almost none towards the end of it. (The cutoff for junior hockey in Canada, as well as the other charts below, is January 1st.) He expanded his study and looked at other sports like football and baseball, and even started to examine the effect of birth-month on things like academic achievement, suicide and self-esteem.”[ix]  The results were consistent.  In other words, the academically and athletically rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

These graphs are from his studies.

 

 

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell writes: “It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.”[x]  One coach, when approached with the data about the effects of summer kids and sports replied, “I mean, it’s ridiculous,” Dhuey says. “It’s outlandish that our arbitrary choice of cutoff dates is causing these long-lasting effects, and no one seems to care about them.” x

“So, essentially, you start out with small differences, either due to measurements which are slightly unfair, or just because of noise or human error on part of the selector. Due to labeling kids as ‘talented’ or ‘untalented’, and treating them differently the perceived differences quickly become real differences, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”[xi] 

Gladwell continues: “Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.  It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.  We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.”x

As parents, grandparents and simply as concerned citizens who want to see our kids have fewer problems in school, and more successes in life, what should we do for these summer kids?  We need to hold our summer kids, especially the boys, out of kindergarten for a year and let them mature.  The additional year will significantly reduce odds of being prescribed ADHD drugs (which have their own set of problems).  It will also help them with sports, self-esteem, increase their overall academic performance for ALL the years they are in school, and decrease unwanted risky behavior later in childhood.  It sounds too good to be true, but the science backs this up!

Some parents may be concerned that they “have to” make their child go because they are going to be 5 by the time school starts.  This is not true!  The state of Kentucky does not mandate children to be enrolled in school until 6 years of age!  The direct quote from the web site is: “Children can enter primary school at age 5, but only if their 5th birthday is on or before October 1 of the current school year.”[xii]  Please note it does not say MUST.  I can hear my father say, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!”  It seems like his sage advice is once again holding true.

Some parents may feel they need to have their child start school this fall “with his/her friends.”  In light of the evidence above, if possible, parents may want to consider staying at home for that year, or putting the summer kid in a private kindergarten for a year, or an additional year of preschool.  Young children make friends quickly and as parents, we want to do what we know is right for your child’s long range future while overcoming short term difficulties.

Not everyone will be able to take this advice.  Family situations and financial situations are facts and are sometimes unchangeable.  Please remember the person that will ultimately pay the price for that decision is your child or grandchild.  We, as a society, may pay the price by not having another Steve Jobs, Malala Yousafzai,  Steven Hawking, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, LeBron James, or a visionary in some other field because he or she was labeled as “not ready to learn” by someone who was well meaning, but simply mistook immaturity for inability.  By giving your summer kid the gift of an extra year and postponing kindergarten, you are making one of the greatest, life changing, positive parenting decisions you can make!

 

 

[i] Sax, Leonard, MD, PhD Boys Adrift.  http://www.boysadrift.com/  (Have a young son or grandson?  A MUST read!)

[ii]http://www.gesellinstitute.org/best-practice-for-common-core/

[iii]http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/impact-month-birth-child-development  *Months adjusted for different cut off dates.

[iv]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182664/DFE-RR017.pdf

[v]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182664/DFE-RR017.pdf

[vi]http://www.cmaj.ca/content/184/7/755.full.pdf+html  Morrow, Richard L, et al, Influence of relative age on diagnosis and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children.  *Months adjusted for different cut off dates.

[vii]Age, Academic Performance, and Stimulant Prescribing for ADHD: A Nationwide Cohort Study Helga Zoëga,  Unnur A. Valdimarsdóttir, and Sonia Hernández-Díaz  Pediatrics 2012; 130:6 1012-1018; published ahead of print November 19, 2012, doi:10.1542/peds.2012-0689

[viii]http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/younger-students-more-likely-to-get-a-d-h-d-drugs/  (a terrific read!)

[ix]http://www.sportsscientists.com/2009/01/the-matthew-effect/   (Also a terrific read!)
[x]Malcolm GladwellOutliers: The Story of Success  (Personally, one of the best books I have ever read!)

[xi]http://blogs.nature.com/ericwubbo/2010/06/the_matthew_effect.html

[xii]http://education.ky.gov/comm/newtoky/pages/kentucky-enrollment-requirements.aspx ;  (Emphasis added in text.)