If your child is currently receiving occupational therapy services in either a sensory clinic or a school-based setting, it is likely that you have heard the phrase “visual motor integration (VMI).” It has possibly been described as the ability to “see something and then recreate it with a pencil,” or “coordination between the eyes and the hands to create an intended outcome.” While these phrases or simple definitions do give some insight into the skill, there are layers to understanding the intricacies of VMI and how it may affect someone in a classroom setting. Why is visual motor integration important? Why does this skill affect a child’s ability to successfully access their curriculum? And really, why do occupational therapists seem to be so focused on this foundational skill?
Let’s start by dissecting the phrase visual motor integration, as each word truly highlights an important aspect.
In this sense, “visual” refers to the functional visual skills and visual perception. Functional visual skills include being able to follow along a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line with one’s eyes, as well as being able to account for depth by focusing on objects that are both close to the face (a book) and far away (the whiteboard). Clinically, these skills are referred to as visual tracking and convergence respectively. Visual perception is the brain’s ability to interpret the data that the eyes are seeing and turn it into meaningful information. This is not simply the ability to clearly see something, a skill that is often assessed by school nurses or optometrist. It is the ability to understand it. Visual perception is complex in its own right, but the specific details are for another time, or potentially another blog.
Similar to visual skills, “motor” refers to one’s overall motor skills. This includes:
- Fine motor control – the ability to use the small muscles in the hands to make coordinated movements;
- Gross motor – the ability to use the large muscles in the body; and
- Postural stability – the ability to create a supported foundation when sitting or standing; a child’s postural stability is hugely affected by their core muscles and their position when sitting.
Some students have visual motor dysfunction because of a deficit in either their visual skills or their motor skills. They find using these two skills together difficult simply because one foundational piece is already affected. Conversely, some students have trouble with VMI simply because of this integration piece. Being able to use these two skills in conjunction with intention and coordination is a skill within itself. Through standardized assessment and clinical observation, occupational therapists should be able to determine the root cause of a child’s VMI dysfunction. This helps to guide appropriate intervention and accommodation. In some ways, visual motor integration is similar to hand-eye coordination. Being able to recreate something that a child sees, such as a square, the letter “A” or a horizontal line is truly using VMI skills.
Next week, we’ll dive further into VMI and how it serves as a foundational skill for academics, its impact on learning and the output students produce.
About the Author
Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.