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Traumatic Brain Injury in the Classroom: 6 Ways to Excel in School After a TBI

College student smiling and writing in her notebook during lecture, learning how to accommodate traumatic brain injury in the classroom

Going back to school after a traumatic brain injury can be challenging. TBI causes many cognitive and physical changes that can make learning new information more difficult.

Fortunately, there are resources available for both students and teachers to help traumatic brain injury survivors succeed in the classroom and beyond.

How to Succeed in the Classroom with TBI

You’re about to learn more about the resources and programs available to continue your academic journey.

Here are 6 tips for TBI survivors that want to succeed in the classroom:

1. Understand How TBI Can Impact Learning

Traumatic brain injury does not affect a person’s intelligence. Although there sometimes is a loss in IQ immediately after a brain injury, this score usually improves as the brain heals.

However, certain cognitive effects of brain injury do make it more difficult for TBI patients to organize and retrieve facts in their minds. It also makes it harder to absorb new information.

Some of the main cognitive symptoms that can impair learning skills include:

  • Memory problems. Traumatic brain injury typically affects a person’s short-term memory. This type of memory is what the brain uses to hold on to information it just received. When this skill is lost, the student will have trouble absorbing what the teacher said or what they just read.
  • Attention deficits. Brain injury patients often have trouble focusing for extended periods of time. This can seriously hinder their success in the classroom.
  • Slowed mental processing. Finally, TBI can also slow down overall brain function. This means that the student might need more time to think through a math problem than someone without a brain injury. They can still solve the problem, it will just take them longer.

These issues can be overcome with the right tools and strategies, but the student will need support from their teachers to succeed.

2. Get Help Returning to the Classroom After Traumatic Brain Injury

tutor helping student finish homework in computer lab

Returning to school after having a brain injury is daunting at first, but there are certain accommodations that students have a right to receive. These tools and techniques can make learning new things after a brain injury much easier.

A thorough evaluation of the student’s cognitive abilities is needed before accommodations can be granted. Students in grades K-12 can also benefit from an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which can help children with TBI find the tools they need to thrive.

The following is a list of common accommodations that students can receive in the classroom after traumatic brain injury:

  • Additional time for tests
  • Extra or extended breaks
  • Permission to record lectures
  • Seats near the teacher
  • A separate, quiet room to take tests without distraction
  • Assess knowledge with multiple-choice tests

These are just a few of the adjustments available to students with brain injuries. For a more thorough list, talk to a disability advisor at your school.

3. Develop a Plan to Navigating College with a Traumatic Brain Injury

college student in wheelchair in library smiling because he has learned how to accommodate his traumatic brain injury in the classroom

College learning is more self-directed than in high school. College students must develop their own time-management, organization, and decision-making skills. This can present a major challenge for most college students, but especially for students with traumatic brain injury.

Brain injury can impair a person’s ability to stay organized and make good decisions. Before we cover specific resources college students with a TBI can access, let’s look at some small changes that can help you improve these crucial skills.

4. Work on Decision Making Skills

Sound decision-making skills are crucial in college and in everyday life. The following are a few ways to help you make better decisions for school with a brain injury:

  • Slow down. For some people, improving their decision skills means working to override their impulsive thoughts or desires. Try to develop a habit of waiting at least five minutes before deciding to do something. This can interrupt your tendency to act without thinking. It also gives you time to think through a problem and find better solutions.
  • Set time limits. On the other hand, some TBI patients agonize over every small decision. If that sounds like you, try setting an appropriate time limit for making a decision. For example, if you are trying to decide between two answers on a test, set your alarm on your watch to go off after two minutes. Then choose an answer. This encourages quick and decisive thinking.
  • Narrow your options. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices available, especially if it is an important decision. To help you push through indecision, try narrowing down your options to three or four items, or whatever feels most manageable. You can also break large decisions into smaller ones and tackle one at a time.

These three simple changes can make a huge difference in your academic life after traumatic brain injury. If you still struggle to make decisions, consider working with a cognitive psychologist. They can offer you more personalized tactics.

5. Find New Ways to Stay Organized in School After Brain Injury

college student surrounded by books in library looking overwhelmed

Organization skills can help you stay on top of your classwork and keep up your grades. These skills are harder for TBI patients to practice, but there are methods you can use to help you stay organized:

  • Create a routine. A routine helps you know “what’s next” without having to come up with something on your own. It can also help you schedule activities for when you are most likely to finish them. For example, if you get more tired in the afternoon, plan to do the most demanding tasks, such as homework, in the morning.
  • Write it down. It helps to keep a whiteboard or a calendar somewhere visible where you can easily find it. Write down – or have a caregiver write down – all the classes and activities planned for the day. When you complete something on the list, cross it off.
  • Minimize distractions. When trying to finish a task, the best approach is to minimize distractions as much as possible. For example, if you find noise distracting, work in your own quiet room. If that is not possible, wear noise-canceling headphones.

These are just small steps you can take to become more organized in school after a brain injury.

6. Know Your Resources for College Students With TBI

Besides general tactics to help college students with TBI, here are a few resources that can help you in the classroom and on campus:

  • Accessibility Services. Public colleges are required by law to have a disability or accessibility service on campus. Many private colleges also have a similar service. The Accessibility Office can put you in touch with an advisor who can help you decide what accommodations you need.
  • AbleData. This database contains a list of assistive technologies. You can search according to your unique needs. Some of these devices can make learning in a classroom setting much easier for brain injury survivors.
  • Study Strategies. This guide from the University of Illinois offers strategies for TBI patients to use when studying. It addresses nearly every cognitive side effect and explains how to overcome it.

In addition, many campuses have study groups for students with disabilities. If you struggle to stay on top of your homework, these can be great resources.

Navigating Traumatic Brain Injury in the Classroom

A brain injury can present heavy obstacles to learning in a classroom, but these can be overcome with the right techniques.

If you want to return to school but feel overwhelmed at the thought, contact the disability office at your university or high school. They can point you in the right direction and explain the many options available to you.

Don’t be afraid either to talk to your professor about your new challenges. Most teachers will be happy to work with you to ensure that you can excel.

Even though it will be more difficult, it is still possible for TBI survivors to succeed in the classroom and accomplish their academic goals

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