A Sit Down – with Jen Mullen COVT
This post appears as part of a series called Sit Downs – candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.
A Sit Down – with Jen Mullen COVT
For the benefit of our readers, can you explain your background and how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?
I am currently the Clinical Manager of Vision Therapy for EyeCare Professionals, P.C., the offices of Drs. Tannen, Despotidis, and Lee in Hamilton Township, NJ. I have worked as a vision therapist with the office for the past 22 years.
Your bio describes your younger days as ‘lacking direction’; a sentiment that most likely is true for all of us at one time or another. Can you describe your life before Vision Therapy and detail what led you to Dr. Tannen and Dr. Despotidis?
Looking back as many of us do when we are older, I think I was always moving in a certain direction, but couldn’t see it. When I was around eight or nine, I read the biography of Helen Keller. While she inspired me, my true hero was her teacher, Anne Sullivan. I wanted to bring about change in someone’s life. I pretended to be Anne Sullivan and would attempt to teach my dolls and our family dog in the same way Anne taught Helen. As a parent now, I’m not sure what my parents thought when they walked in on me signing into the dog’s paw (the dog was also wearing a dress and bonnet). At the time it never occurred to me the dog’s lack of opposable thumbs may make it difficult for her to sign back.
Fast forward to college, I was an English major with a minor in Journalism, mostly because all my high school teachers kept telling me it was what I should do. I realized one day I had no idea how I was going to apply my education. I decided I needed to take a step back and think a while to decide what I really wanted to do. By chance I found an ad in the newspaper for a vision therapist, with training provided. It interested me as I had been thinking about either physical or occupational therapist as possible new directions I could take. I had worked part-time during high school and college as an assistant in the recreation therapy department of a long-term care facility, so I knew I liked helping to improve people’s quality of life. I decided to take a chance and apply.
After applying I realized the office was the office of my eye doctor. I always loved the office as a patient, so I was excited at the prospect of working there. After I was hired and learned what vision therapy was all about, I read everything I could get my hands on. I was hooked.
I think sometimes when we look back on our passions as children; it’s a very honest snapshot of who we are. It can be a map to find your true passion later in life. I had the directions; I just wasn’t looking at the map.
In 1996 you completed your Certification as a Vision Therapist (COVT). What was that experience like? Has the process changed since then?
I found out about the opportunity for certification by accident when I found a book called “The COVTT Study Guide” in a pile of books in the office. As soon as I found it, I knew it was something I wanted to do. When I earned my certification we were called “Certified Optometric Vision Therapy Technicians”, so that’s one big change since 1996.
It was also a much lonelier process. I completed most of it without ever speaking to a COVT or even another vision therapist. My only indication that other vision therapists were not mythical creatures was there were authors in “The COVTT Study Guide” that were COVTTs.
I was lucky to have extremely supportive doctors in the practice. At the time Dr. Nick Despotidis and Dr. Chaya Herzberg were in the F.C.O.V.D. process, so we all worked together and traveled together to Atlanta, Georgia to take our tests. We basically, flew in late on Monday, took our tests on Tuesday, and left early Wednesday morning. Now there’s much more peer support due to the COVT mentoring program. It’s also easier to connect with other therapists with tools like social media, Google groups, and blogs. If memory serves, I had to mail in my OBQ’s, and I think there was a “new” option of sending them in on a disk if you had the technology available. Now that I’ve said that, I feel like an antique!
As a seasoned Vision Therapist who has been certified nearly 20 years, what advice would you offer others who might be considering certification?
It may sound a bit cliché, but just do it! I learned so much going through the process even though most of it was on my own. Now there is so much opportunity to pick the brains of so many brilliant people whether it be a mentor or posting questions to the Google group. The beauty of the process is, in addition to the pride one gets from earning certification, it sets the tone for life-long learning. I love the fact that after 20 years there is always something new to learn.
Can you describe your experiences as a mentor?
As a mentor, it is rewarding watching someone learn and grow into self-confidence about his or her knowledge. Often as candidates enter the certification process, they already possess the knowledge to answer the questions found in all three parts of certification. They just need time to find out what they really know. It’s a bit like watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. It’s so wonderful to see others with a passion for VT working to be the best they can be, and in doing so, ultimately making the world a better place.
In your experience, what can parents do to make sure Vision Therapy is a positive and successful experience for their child, and for themselves?
Clear and realistic goal setting for both parents and the child is important. Discussing goals will also help the child understand why he or she is coming to therapy. If you empower the patient with knowledge, help him to understand he is a participant in the process of therapy and attaining a goal, and therapy is not something that is done to him, it leads to a more positive and successful experience. The child’s goal should truly be the child’s goal, so it might not be “I want to move up two reading levels.” It might be something like, “I want to ride a two wheel bike.” The parent and child may have very different goals, but both are important.
It is also helpful for parents to realize and help their child to understand that therapy is not like school. There are no wrong answers. There are no grades. There is learning and there is hard work. So many of the kids we see have been traumatized by poor school performance, it’s important to set a different tone in VT. It may seem obvious but it’s important for parents to understand to keep children home from therapy if they are sick. Several times I’ve had to gently suggest maybe it’s not best for a patient to come if he has a fever or is on doses of pain medication because of the tooth he had pulled this morning. We tend to get less accomplished when a patient is not feeling well.
For parents who may be researching possible avenues to help their child, what are some good questions to ask the teacher at conference time, or anytime there might be a concern?
If a parent is concerned, it is best not to wait until conference time. Open up lines of communication with the teacher early and often. If you can start a dialogue with the teacher before school starts, that’s even better. As a parent, you know your child best. If you can communicate with the teacher, it’s better to solve little problems early and often than wait until the problem seems insurmountable.
From personal experience one question that has worked well at conference time is, “If this were your child, what would you do?” You can get some great insight into possible viable solutions this way. Both because this question tends to provoke some deep thought and the solutions will be able to be implemented in that particular classroom and set of circumstances. If it seems like your child is having issues in school that are not being addressed, check with the laws of your state, but under federal law, you have a right to request an evaluation for your child. Make sure your request is in writing, and keep a record of your request.
My grandmother always said, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” As parents, we have to be that squeaky wheel.
Often times, parents will ask how quickly they will see results once a Vision Therapy program is started. Clearly, many factors come into play when answering this question and no definitive or universal answer applies to every patient. If asked, how do you address this question?
We generally tell parents they may start to see changes in 8-10 sessions, but we also stress that all patients are individuals and progress at their own pace. This is also an opportunity to discuss goal setting and realistic expectations. Inevitably, there will always be a parent that will come to us after 4-5 weeks, upset that he or she is not seeing changes. This is why it’s so important to take a detailed history of symptoms, because often once you can ask specifics the parent will realize things are better. For example, “At the evaluation it was reported that Johnny had headaches every day after school, how many headaches is he getting per week now?” When presented with a question like this, the parent will often say, “He doesn’t complain of headaches anymore.” After that statement the parent has that moment of “Ah-ha!” Sometimes as therapists we have to help parents come to their own realizations just as we help patients become aware of their visual system.
As Vision Therapists, often times we find our greatest challenges in our youngest patients. Do you find this to be true? Is there an age range that you enjoy working with most?
One of the two types of patients I enjoy the most are the youngest patients because it is so easy to engage them by making each activity a game, and it gives me a chance to be silly. I’m not above crawling on the floor and putting stickers on my face. The room usually looks like it was hit by a tornado afterward, but it was a fun tornado!
My other favorites are adults with ABI. Most of the time these patients are extremely self-motivated, and, selfishly, I enjoy the feeling of helping them get back something that was lost, especially because every small gain is so meaningful. These are also the patients that keep me up at night thinking about them. Sometimes it’s challenging to leave work at work.
The patients I find most challenging are angry teenagers. Sometimes it’s like trying to do vision therapy with a grizzly bear! Lucky for me, they are a favorite of our other full time COVT, Jodi Mallery. We are lucky that we each have our niche.
If you could wave your magic wand and change one thing about Vision Therapy or Developmental Optometry, what would it be?
If I could wave a magic wand I would make Vision Therapy an easily attainable household name. VT is so life changing, but many patients face so many obstacles just to get to us. I so often hear, “I wish I knew about this sooner.” or “Is this a brand new thing?” My magic wand would make these questions obsolete.
In New Jersey we’re pretty lucky, we have several VT providers in all different parts of the state, so if a patient is looking for VT services he or she can usually find an office within reasonable traveling distance. But in some places VT services are very hard to find or require hours of travel. I would just raise my wand, “Accio VT!”
What is it about Vision Therapy that keeps you going, or drives your enthusiasm?
I love the whole process. From when you first meet a new patient and need to find out the best way to adjust the therapy to help him or her the most, to the relationship and trust that’s built when you’re in the thick of therapy, to watching a patient change and celebrating those positive changes. There is always something new to learn, something interesting to read, or someone fascinating to listen to. I get excited just thinking about it!
Lastly, my understanding is that you have four children. Can you tell us about them?
My three sons are 18, 15, and 4 and my daughter is 14 (pictured above). They keep me on my toes! It’s a lot of fun watching my teenagers interact with my 4 year old, they love him so much. While having 3 teens is challenging, it’s truly been a privilege to watch them grow and change over the years. Having teens is a little like trying to hold a handful of sand; you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing, and if you squeeze too hard to try to hold onto it, it will be lost.
My kids have been an inspiration for many therapy activities over the years. A favorite is a game called “Splat” that two of my sons invented. I’ve also snuck off with some of their toys to use in the therapy room over the years. My daughter enjoys visiting the office; she has come for “Take Your Child to Work Day” for the past several years, and sometimes comes in in the Summer as a volunteer to help out. They are my greatest joy and my greatest challenge.
Some Closing Thoughts – A great thanks to Jen for taking time out for this interview. Jen is truly a gifted Vision Therapist with a wealth of knowledge and such a great passion for her patients. Along with Dr.’s Despotidis and Lee, Jen works with one of my favorite interviewees, Dr. Barry Tannen; a collaboration which surely makes their office nothing short of incredible. In truth, they are all aces in my book! Please join me in wishing Jen, her doctors, patients, and family, the absolute best! 🙂