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How to Help: Students with Traumatic Brain Injuries

Meghan Mathis

How to Help: Students with Traumatic Brain InjuriesWhile many educators think of March as Women’s History Month and may offer a lesson or two encouraging their students to recognize the many accomplishments and contributions women have made in our society, a growing number of teachers are beginning to recognize March for a different reason. It is also National Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month.  National media stories like the shooting in Tucson, Arizona (which left six dead and fourteen injured, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords) and the increased concern over the long-term effects of repeated head injuries suffered by players in the NFL have brought Traumatic Brain Injury into the forefront of public consciousness. However, many of us are still unaware of how living with this disability can have a major impact on a person’s life. These types of injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in both children and young adults, so it makes sense for us as teachers to be aware of how sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury might affect our students, as well as what we can do to help them succeed in our classrooms (ThinkFirst).

The Brain Injury Association of America reports that a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is “a blow, jolt, or bump to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain.”  Most TBIs are concussions or other forms of mild brain injuries.  People who experience these types of injuries often recover without any lingering side-effects within one to three months. Approximately 25% of TBIs that occur each year, however, are classified as moderate to severe and carry with them consequences that can last for the rest of an individual’s life (Brain Injury Association of America).  So what could a student who has sustained a moderate to severe TBI encounter when they return to school?  And, what can we, his or her teacher, do to ensure they have the best possible chance for success?


The most common symptoms experienced by people with TBI fall into three groups. 

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  • Physical symptoms, like headaches, dizziness, nausea, sleep problems, and fatigue.
  • Cognitive Symptoms, like difficulty concentrating and shortened attention span, delayed processing speed, and decreased short-term memory.
  • Finally, people living with moderate to severe TBI often experience behavioral symptoms like irritability, emotional instability, depression and anxiety (Brain Injury Association of America).  With this in mind, it quickly becomes apparent how a student experiencing even a few of these symptoms might find the return to a school environment challenging. 

What the Students Say

Students who have sustained TBI are often quite able to express why the school setting is so challenging.  Frequent complaints include that their newly-limited attention span makes sitting through an entire class impossible, that exhaustion sets in and getting through an entire day is too much, and that retaining information that they thought they had learned is exceedingly difficult.  Other students comment that they believe they have studied adequately, only to look at the exam and draw a blank (Hsu and Kreutzer).  Finally, students describe the anxiety they experience in the crowded, loud, bright school environment.  “It is almost unbearable to know that I’m going to have to leave a quiet classroom and walk through the crowded hall full of people yelling.  It makes me so nervous and then I feel like I’m going to forget the fastest way to get to my next class.  By the time I do get there, my heart is pounding and I feel like my head is going to explode.  I thought about dropping out a lot.” a student I work with shared with me when I asked her how she had felt returning to high school after her motorcycle accident. 

How We Can Help

Most educators are now quite comfortable providing a variety of accommodations and modifications for our students in our classrooms – we do it every day.  But students who experience a Traumatic Brain Injury, their parents, and even school administrators may not be aware of what accommodations are available to help the student successfully navigate through the school environment.  We can become an integral lifeline to our students with TBI by familiarizing ourselves with which modifications might help with the variety of symptoms they are most likely to be experiencing.

Accommodations and Modifications for Students with TBI

  • Extended time to complete assignments – This is helpful not just for quizzes and tests, but for all assignments you may be giving your students.  You could even give a student who has sustained a TBI material early, giving them the opportunity to preview the information before class which would allow them to participate in class discussions with their peers (Hsu and Kreutzer).
  • Access to class notes and lectures – Providing students with copies of notes and even audio recordings of longer lectures will allow them to listen to them more than once and in small chunks, increasing their retention of the material.
  • Ability to take breaks – Individuals with TBI can become overwhelmed quickly and sometimes, in situations that we might not immediately recognize.  Giving these students permission to leave a situation that has become overwhelming, maybe to get a drink of water or go for a short walk, could mean the difference between a student breaking down and a student feeling in control of their emotions in the school setting (Hsu and Kreutzer).
  • Testing accommodations – Allowing a student to keep formula sheets with them, utilize a calculator, use multiple-choice formats instead of essay tests, chunking longer tests and quizzes, and offering students the opportunity to provide answers orally to you during a quiet time rather than having to write the answers can all reduce the stress and anxiety felt by students with Traumatic Brain Injuries (Hsu and Kreutzer).
  • Be an advocate/ally – One of the most challenging aspects of life with TBI can be the behavioral symptoms.  A young person who remembers that they were once an upbeat, positive, popular person might now be dealing with depression, anxiety, and an inability to read social situations and respond as appropriately as they used to.   These students are going to need to know that they have people around them who are supportive and understanding.  They might not want to talk to us about what they are dealing with, but it is essential that we let them know we are here for them.

The Brain Injury Association states, “Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two brain injuries are exactly alike (Brain Injury Association of America).”  With that in mind, educators might be the most perfect people to help individuals with Traumatic Brain Injuries.  After all, our careers are entirely about our belief that all children can learn, but that they all learn differently.  We are comfortable adapting our curriculum and teaching methods to reach every young person we work with each day.  This March, I encourage you to reach out to any students you may know who are living with TBI and let them know you are here to help them succeed. 


Works Cited

“Anytime, Anywhere, Anyone: Brain Injuries Do Not Discriminate.” 2013. Brain Injury Association of America. Feb 20, 2013.

“Injury Prevention.” 2013. ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation. Feb 25, 2013.

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