Students with Traumatic Brain Injuries Student and Teacher Resources for Success in School After a Head Injury

Meet the Experts

Will Dane Read bio

Written by…

Jana Cary-Alvarez Read bio

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) may create significant changes in a person’s lifestyle and goals for the future, but a head injury does not have to be a barrier for a student’s educational aspirations. The majority of students who suffer from a TBI return to the classroom, either in traditional school settings or through specialized programs. Students of all ages—from elementary to college—have resources available for continuing their academic journeys. Keep reading to learn about these resources, organizations and programs that can help students perform academically after a head injury. Parents and teachers will find a variety of tools they can use to support their students as well.

Traumatic Brain Injuries in Students

Traumatic brain injuries come with a lot of uncertainties, as no two injuries are identical. The location of the injury, the medical and rehabilitative care after the initial injury, the age of the individual and more can all affect how a traumatic brain injury heals and what effects linger. For some, including mild traumatic brain injuries—also known as concussions—the effects may be temporary. For others, the impact can be lifelong. Here are some common causes and effects of traumatic brain injuries in students:

POSSIBLE CAUSES OF A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY

  • Fall or physical assault
  • Strike to the head with an object
  • Sport-related injury
  • Traffic accident
  • Blast or other combat-related event

Types Of Traumatic Brain Injuries

  • Closed or Penetrative

    In closed TBIs, nothing enters the skull; instead, the damage is often done by the brain colliding with the skull at the site of impact or coup-contrecoup (at the site of impact and on the opposite side of the skull). With penetrative TBIs, an external object enters the skull and brain, such as shrapnel.

  • Oxygen-Related

    Sometimes a traumatic brain injury can result without any physical force; anoxia and hypoxia occur when the brain does not receive enough oxygen or blood as can happen with drowning and strokes. These brain injuries are sometimes called acquired brain injuries (ABI) rather than traumatic brain injuries (TBI) but the symptoms and effects can be very similar.

  • Concussions and Contusions

    Both are common types of traumatic brain injuries, but they are different from one another. A brain contusion is a bruise on the brain in a single location, where blood collects under the skin. With a concussion, there is no direct bruise location, but instead a widespread, diffused impairment of brain tissue. A person with a traumatic brain injury may experience one or the other, or both together.

  • Diffuse Axonal Injury

    A DAI is the result of a blunt injury to the brain, such as shaking or the shearing force of a high-speed car accident. It is a severe brain injury that affects numerous functional areas of the brain, and if severe enough can cause patients to fall into a vegetative state.

Common Effects & Symptoms In Students

  • Behavioral, emotional and personality changes such as increased anxiety, lack of motivation, increased impulsiveness and poor judgment.

  • Cognitive changes such as shortened attention span, difficulty recalling short- and long-term memories, problem-solving and comprehending new information. Many of these effects are similar to learning disorders, and in fact many children with TBI are instead diagnosed with learning disorders.

  • Loss of senses such as vision, hearing and balance.

  • Physical changes such as difficulty walking or completing physical tasks.

  • Sleeping difficulties such as sleeping too much or too little.

Academic Impact

  • Shortened attention span and impulsivity

  • Difficulty or inability to read, write, or listed

  • Difficulty comprehending or retaining new material; difficulty recalling old material

  • Increased disorganization in thoughts

  • Reduced social skills

After a Traumatic Brain Injury:
Transitioning Back to Class

No matter the age of the student, going back to school following a traumatic brain injury can present challenges. Though there is no one-size-fits-all list of solutions, there are many resources to help students with traumatic brain injuries successfully transition back into the classroom. From innovative study systems to navigating social situations, a TBI may force students to reassess their strengths, weaknesses and acclimate to aspects of their personality that might be different. Take a look at some common challenges students might face coming back to the classroom after a TBI with age-appropriate resources designed to help.

K-12 Students

Though the age spectrum is wide, K-12 students who are recovering from traumatic brain injuries typically have one thing in common: they are still supported by their parents. This section is not only designed to be helpful for K-12 students after a TBI themselves, but their parent and teacher allies as well.

Social isolation is a common challenge for individuals with disabilities, including students with TBIs. Friends and peers are a vital part of school success, but students should be prepared for potential changes in the social dynamics between old friends, and also set themselves up to make new connections.

Resources to Help

  • Circle of Friends

    This program, intended for young children, helps connect students with disabilities to those without in order to form lasting friendships and develop important social skills.

  • Come Roll with Me

    Come Roll With Me is the personal blog of Hunter Klech, a young adult with a physical disability. Here, he addresses some parts of society that can prevent teens and young adults with disabilities from making friends and his strategies for leading a fun and fulfilling social life regardless.

  • The Key to Friendship When You Have a Disability

    The author of this article, a teenage girl with cerebral palsy, gives some advice, insight and inspiration for finding good and true friends.

  • Teens Talking to Teens

    This BrainLine video, an excerpt of a longer video available at Lash & Associates Publishing, documents the recovery and continued challenges of a teenage girl following her traumatic brain injury. Throughout the video she addresses her feelings of loneliness.

While younger children will often have their Individualized Education Program (IEP) planned and created by their parents and teachers, older students may have a better idea of what they need and want to accomplish in school after a traumatic brain injury. IEPs for high schoolers may include post-graduation plans and goals. It’s never a bad idea to know your rights and to be your own advocate.

Resources to Help

  • Guide to the Individualized Education Plan

    This is the U.S. Department of Education’s official guide to individualized education plans (IEPs). It includes steps on building an IEP, who to contact, and even sample forms.

  • Individualized Education Programs

    This article from KidsHealth outlines what IEPs entail and how they are created. Additionally, this guide includes helpful accessibility tools, like the option to play an audio version of the article.

  • A Student’s Guide to the IEP

    This article from the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities is written specifically for students, rather than their parents; it covers all of the basics and most important parts of the IEP.

Traumatic brain injuries can greatly alter cognitive abilities. This means that students may have difficulties with skills vital for school work, such as language processing and organization. Below are helpful resources for students who want assistance, tips and new approaches to academics after a TBI.

Resources to Help

  • Guided Notes Increase Test Scores

    A University of Michigan review of a guided notes system designed for students with learning disabilities that uncovers benefits for all students in a classroom, regardless of cognitive ability.

  • MSKTC Cognitive Problems After Traumatic Brain Injury

    This factsheet addresses some of the common cognitive difficulties students may experience after a TBI and actionable strategies for the student. Although most of these ideas are for the students themselves, educators and families may also benefit from this factsheet.

  • Tips for Students with Learning Disabilities

    The cognitive difficulties that may result from TBI can share similarities with learning disabilities, so resources such as this one from PBS can still be very helpful. This guide focuses on habits and techniques that younger students will benefit most from but older students can definitely use as well.

College Students

College students with disabilities, including TBI, are less likely to graduate on-time than their peers. While that may sound discouraging, these low graduation rates are likely the result of students not knowing about or finding the accommodations they need to access the same level of education as their peers. Continue reading to learn some of the specific challenges college students with TBI face and how they can overcome them.

College can be challenging both inside the classroom and beyond, especially for students with traumatic brain injuries. Just remember that there are other individuals who have been down similar paths; many others have learned to overcome brain injury challenges to find academic success. Below are some examples of individuals who have gone to college with TBI and graduated, as well as suggestions for making sure your social life grows alongside your academic one.

Resources to Help

College learning is much more self-directed than in high school. This means that students must rely on their own time management, scheduling and decision-making with limited input from parents or teachers, which may pose a challenge for some students with TBI.

Resources to Help

The plans and services offered to eligible students with disabilities are very different from those used in the public K-12 school system. Students with a traumatic brain injury should familiarize themselves with the accommodation laws and systems colleges follow, and meet with their school’s Disability Services Office to learn about your campus-specific accessibility and accommodation options.

Resources to Help

College students may find their personal relationships change after a TBI. It’s important to remember that a brain injury, no matter how mild or severe, affects both the patient and those that surround and support them. Communication is key to keeping relationships with friends, family, co-workers and teachers healthy, but both sides should be patient and understand that progress may be slow.

Resources to Help

Student Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries

Many veterans use the post-9/11 GI Bill to attend college, including those with combat-related traumatic brain injuries. Transitioning into civilian life can be difficult, and a brain injury can make the transition into academic life more stressful. Fortunately, there are dozens of organizations, campus support systems and online resources that can help. Here are some of the common challenges student veterans might face upon returning to the classroom, with advice and for navigating the college accommodations system and successfully pursuing a degree as a student veteran with a traumatic brain injury.

Transitioning to civilian life after the military can be a challenge in of itself, and combat-related injuries such as TBI can make it even more complicated. Luckily, there are a wide range of tips and resources available specifically designed to make this transition smoother for student veterans.

Resources to Help

  • ACE Service Member & Veteran Academic Advising Summit

    The American Council on Education brings together military-connected students and their veterans employment and transition advisors and advocates to discuss support and services offered in higher education. Check with your local Veteran’s Affairs Advisor about their involvement.

  • National Youths Transitions Center

    This module covers frequently asked questions about the transition to academic life for veterans with disabilities. The guide emphasizes laws and rights these veterans should know.

  • TBI Recovery Support Program

    This section of the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center helps support veterans with TBI and their care team, such as doctors, family members and friends, through their initial recovery following their injury and the transition back home.

  • Veterans on Campus

    This educational video program helps veterans with disabilities establish peer networks and support each other through college.

  • Wings for Warriors

    This organization exists to serve veterans disabled in the line of duty—specifically those who served in Afghanistan or Iraq—providing counseling, resources and even funding for the transition back to civilian life.

While the U.S. government and Department of Veterans Affairs will provide support for veterans in general, there are also some lesser-known resources from both the government and civilian organizations specifically designed for veterans with TBIs.

Resources to Help

  • Accommodating Student Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury

    A guide from the American Council on Education that can be shared with campus faculty, administration, veteran’s support staffers and anyone else who works with veterans with traumatic brain injuries.

  • Student Veterans Disability Services Liaison

    This program from Student Veterans of America helps establish on-campus veteran liaisons at colleges across the country who can assist newly enrolled veterans navigate the accommodations systems and adjust to college life.

  • Veteran Financial Directory

  • This directory from BrainLine helps connect veterans, especially those with TBI, with academic funding so they can focus on their studies rather than their budget.

  • VetSuccess on Campus

    This arm of the Department of Veteran Affairs works with college-bound veterans to help them transition to school and help them navigate any accommodations office requirements that they need.

Traumatic brain injuries can drastically alter cognitive abilities that are necessary for veterans to have maximum success in school. That doesn’t mean veterans can’t find academic success after a head injury—there are organizations and services dedicated to helping veterans academically, including assisting in the process of re-learning how to learn.

Resources to Help

  • Computer/Electronic Accommodation Program

    Funded by the U.S. government, this website helps connect veterans with the accommodations they need. Users can sort through possible accommodations by the type of disability they have.

  • Information Technology in Education Accessibility Checklist

    This checklist from the University of Washington can be used to help identify areas of opportunity regarding IT accessibility features that can help students with brain injuries succeed academically.

  • Professional Tutors of America

    This veteran-owned and -run tutoring organization has special offers for veterans and their families. They also work with veterans who have combat-related injuries to help them develop new study skills and other skills that will help them succeed academically and professionally.

  • University Studies for Student Veterans

    This online course offered by Columbia University through EdX offers advice for student veterans on entering college and finding academic success while there. Although this course does not specifically address TBI, the techniques and study skills taught will still be beneficial.

  • UCF Veterans Academic Resource Center

    While some of the policies addressed here are specific to University of Central Florida, this website includes a wide range of tips and resources for student veterans that can be applied at nearly any college.

Expert Advice:
Common Academic Accommodations for TBI

Will Dane, Brain Injury Association of America

Will Dane is the public affairs manager for the Brain Injury Association of America, one of the foremost organizations dedicated to serving individuals with TBIs. Will has done extensive work in fundraising and advocacy and holds a degree from the University of Oklahoma in communications.

“Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are among the highest risk of sustaining a brain injury. This is problematic as the injuries occur when individuals are just beginning to plan or venture into their independent lives, and for many the most important step in this process is obtaining an education. The challenges a student experiences after a traumatic brain injury vary significantly depending on the severity of the injury. In the most severe cases, the child may not be able to function independently in any capacity. A thorough evaluation of the student’s academic and cognitive abilities is essential to determine what accommodations are necessary.”

Here are some examples of common accommodations Dane suggests for students coming back to class after experiencing a TBI:

  • Allowing additional time to complete work

  • Allowing for extra or extended breaks

  • Grading the quality of work over the quantity of work (not how much the student did, but how well they did)

  • Providing the student with the instructor’s (or detailed) notes

  • Allowing the student to record classroom instruction for later playback

  • Providing clear oral and written instructions

  • Implementing assistive technology when applicable

  • When the teacher is grading the student’s work, they may reduce emphasis on spelling and grammatical errors unless it is the purpose of the assignment

  • Seat the student at the front of the classroom or near the teacher

  • Not requiring the student to read aloud or present material in front of classmates

  • Allowing additional time to complete tests without distractions

  • Allowing oral examinations

  • Assessing knowledge using multiple-choice questions

Schools & Educators:
Supporting Students After Brain Injuries

Although students with TBI will often have access to accommodations and special pull-out classes, mainstream education teachers may not have all the resources they need to successfully integrate these students into the general educational environment and assure that they learn and grow alongside their peers. A wide range of resources are available to teachers, including those working in special education classes and general education classes, for every age group from elementary to college.

Young students with newly-acquired TBI may have the same difficulties as older students with TBI, but elementary and middle school classes are structured very differently and require a specialized approach to produce successful learning outcomes. Below are some examples, ideas and resources educators can use to support and accommodate elementary and middle school students with TBI.

  • Academic Effects of Concussion in Children and Adolescence

    A study that highlights impacts of head injuries and concussions on academic learning and performance.

  • Brain STEPS Program: Traumatic Brain Injury Support

    The Brain STEPS program in Pennsylvania explores strategies for educators, parents and students on the challenges and intervention opportunities to expect with children re-entering school after a brain injury.

  • “How Teacher Training Hinders Special-Needs Students”

    Focusing on the movement to integrate students with disabilities into general education classrooms, this article shines light on the struggles teachers face when they aren’t properly equipped with the knowledge and training to help students with disabilities succeed academically.

  • Michael Wight and Elementary School After TBI

    This short video documents the challenges and ultimate triumphs of an elementary student who enrolled in a new school after acquiring TBI. The mini-documentary contains interviews with his on-campus support team as well as examples of how he participates in his mainstream class.

  • Returning to School After Traumatic Brain Injury

    This article from the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center covers many of the challenges and difficulties students with TBI face when returning to the classroom, as well as suggestions and ideas for how teachers and schools can make the transition smoother.

  • Teaching the Student with TBI Q&A

    Here experts from the National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury answer questions submitted by teachers of students with TBI.

High school is a difficult time for many students, and TBI can introduce new challenges for teens at school. Educators can find strategies for supporting and teaching students with TBI through their high school years and guide them to academic success with the help of the resources below:

College students with traumatic brain injuries may work with their professors on the accommodations offered to them by a school, but professors and administrators can help support students with TBI in many other ways as well. Check out some of the more innovative methods and ideas being used on college campuses to help students with TBI succeed.

  • Adapting Content with Technology

    A guide to reformatting lessons and differentiating instruction for students with disabilities like TBI using common technology, published by the Colorado Department of Education.

  • Chandler-Gilbert Community College Strategies

    This community college located near Phoenix, AZ has created an online guide for its professors and instructors with methods and reminders to help them create a learning environment that students with TBI can benefit from.

  • Ferris State University Instructional Strategies

    Here, Ferris State University outlines helpful strategies for professors and instructors to use with students who have TBI, including different approaches for common symptoms.

  • Improving the Effectiveness of Lectures with Guided Notes

    A fact sheet for faculty on the Guided Notes lecture method that has been shown to help increase test scores for students with learning disabilities, and general student populations as well.

  • The Kennedy Model

    Dr. Mary Kennedy and her research are at the forefront of TBI and learning in college students. This video provides some background information on her method via an interview with her. Her academic articles and findings are available at PubMed.gov.

  • Teaching College Students with Disabilities

    Based on the specific, real-life situations professors encounter when teaching students with disabilities, this guide is all-encompassing, but also offers specific guidance for teaching students with head injuries.

How Educators can Help Students Developing & Rebuilding Social Skills

Educators know school isn’t just about teaching lessons provided by textbooks, it’s also about helping students develop healthy socialization habits. Social learning happens inside and outside the classroom, and students with TBIs may need to learn or rebuild their social skills in different ways than their peers. To help improve the social skills of students with TBI and to help prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation, check out the resources below:

  • Friendship and Peer Acceptance

    BrainLine’s guide on classroom relationships provides ideas and strategies for helping students with TBI and their peers, especially helping older students in high school improve their social skills and relationships.

  • LD Online Behavior & Social Skills

    This collection of valuable articles for educators of students with learning disabilities will still have ideas and methods that can be used with students who have TBI.

  • LD@School Social Skills Training

    This guide to teaching social skills to students with learning disabilities includes in-depth information and connects readers to similar resources.

  • Talking to Children About TBI

    Educators preparing their students, especially elementary-age students, for the return of a classmate with TBI can use this guide as a launchpad for ideas.

How Educators Can Help Student Veterans

Traditional college students often arrive on campus fresh out of high school, but a growing number of non-traditional students are enrolling in college after military service. While these students can still benefit from the accommodations offered by a campus disability or veteran’s service office, those with a TBI may benefit from additional support from their school and educators:

  • Accommodating Student Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    This free guide from the American Council on Education addresses how higher education faculty and staff can build an inclusive college experience that assures lessons and resources are accessible for student veterans with TBI and/or PTSD.

  • Green Zone Training Program

    For college staff and faculty to become certified veteran advocates, this training program equips educators with skills needed to help student veterans feel supported, both academically and socially.

  • Kognito Veterans on Campus Professional Development

    This short online program is geared towards helping colleges and their staff better identify the needs of student veterans, especially those with TBI, and address those needs effectively.

  • Military & Veteran Resource Center

    This center at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee serves as a hub of information and services for student veterans; this system assures that student veterans can find the resources they need with ease. The University of Arizona has a similar center for student veterans, and many other student veterans (especially those with the added challenge of TBI and navigating accommodations offices) would benefit from similar resources on their campuses.

  • Veterans Special Interest Group

    This group within the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) researches and promotes methods which support the education of student veterans with disabilities.

How Parents & Guardians Can Help Academically After a Head Injury

The support of parents, guardians, and families as a whole are often vital for the success of students; this is especially true for children, teens and young adults who have experienced a traumatic brain injury. Here are some valuable resources for understanding and helping students with TBI adjust to school and perform to the best of their abilities while there:

Adolescents with Traumatic Brain Injury

This article, published by the American Psychological Association, is written mostly for therapists and other providers. However, it provides valuable insight into significant challenges students with TBI may face when transitioning back to school and how their support network, including their families, can help.

BIAColorado

The Colorado chapter of the Brain Injury Association put together this piece to help connect children, teens and parents with TBI-specific support groups. Although these groups are Colorado-specific, other state chapters of BIA may have similar directories and information.

Guide for Families About School

The Brain Injury Association of New Jersey created this guide with over 60 pages of advice, resources and tips for helping a student with TBI successfully return to school.

LEARNet

The BIA of New York created and maintains this free resource for teachers, parents, and students; it helps individuals with TBI test and identify new learning strategies and solutions that best suit their needs.

Parent Center Hub and TBI

This section of the Center for Parent Information and Resources focuses specifically on TBI, including a breakdown of common symptoms and challenges children can face and extensive advice on how to help students succeed in school.

TBI Toys

Fat Brain Toys offers a selection of toys that can help boost the motor and cognitive skills of children with TBI. The toys are largely intended for pre-K through elementary ages.

Top Ten Back to School Tips for Students

This guide offers ideas for how parents can help their children re-adjust to school and succeed once they are there. Many of the ideas are easily implemented and involve no special purchases.

Why a C Feels More Like an A to My Daughter With TBI

This short article written by the mother of a college student with TBI addresses the idea of creating a “new normal” and realistic expectations with honesty and insight.

Head Injury Prevention: Schools Protecting Students

Head injury prevention has been a serious topic of discussion amongst schools, parents, politicians and healthcare professionals, as popular sports programs like as soccer and football have been shown to put students at increased risk for TBI. Because these programs are often school-sponsored, many believe administrators should be implementing policies aimed at head injury prevention to better protect their students. Here are some examples of how schools and communities are working to address, treat and prevent TBI in students:

Coaches Training Programs

Published by the Brain Injury Alliance of Nebraska, this coach and player toolkit provides links to approved head injury training programs for coaches, such as Heads UP to School Sports.

Illinois Policy Tackle Football Ban

Illinois is just one state supporting a ban on tackle football for children under 12 years of age.

NJ Safe Schools

The New Jersey Safe Schools program addresses concussions and mild TBIs in schools by providing prevention information to schools, coaches, teachers and parents.

State-by-State Injury Prevention Policy Report (2015)

This extensive account of injury types and prevention measures across the states of America includes sections on which states have programs addressing TBI in schools and the overall success of these programs.

Symptom Tracking App for Concussions

In part developed by the Brain Injury Research Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin, this app helps parents and coaches successfully identify head injuries to assure students get the treatment they need.

TBI and SCI Injury Prevention Inventory

Here, SafeStates has a directory of organizations and systems designed to protect students from concussions and TBI, including sample measures communities and schools can put into place.

Think-A-Head

This program spearheaded by the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts teaches K-12 students about the dangers of brain injury and how they can make healthy choices to prevent them. The program includes three separate sections for elementary, middle and high schools with age-appropriate activities and lessons.

Additional Head Injury Resources for Students

In addition to the specific resources above, there are dozens more TBI-focused websites and organizations available online, some geared towards those who suffer from TBI and some for their support networks. Here are some of the best TBI resources for everything from life skills support to finding advocacy services.

Brain Injury Association

The BIA is a nationwide organization that supports individuals with TBI; in addition to its directory of state chapters, the BIA includes dozens of useful articles about nearly every aspect of living with TBI.

Brain Injury Services

This Virginia-specific organization connects individuals with traumatic brain injuries to the services and support systems they need.

BrainLine

This website contains a variety of articles for anyone affected by TBI as well as information on how to cope with the symptoms of TBI to lead a more successful and fulfilling life.

Centre for Neuro Skills

There are four Neuro Skills centers throughout the country that offer rehabilitation services to those with TBI and similar acquired brain injuries; even if you do not live near a Neuro Skills center the website still has a variety of helpful tips and resources.

Lash & Associates Publishing

This publishing company offers a wide range of tools and resources for individuals with TBI, their families, and professionals who work with TBI.

Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center

This organization creates and offers excellent resources for individuals suffering from traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and burns.

National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury

The TBINRC is managed by Virginia Commonwealth University and serves as a hub for resources, links and even Q&As about traumatic brain injuries.