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Imagine waking up one day unable to remember what happened the day before, or having a difficult time reading a book. This lesson will explore a few teaching strategies that might help a student with a traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Beth is a sixth grade student who loves school and is a model student in the classroom. She finishes her assignments early, keeps track of her homework, and does well on tests and projects. Beth rides her bike around town, including to and from friends’ houses and violin practice. One day, she got on her bike without a helmet and rode to school.

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She looked down for a moment to check her shoelaces, and when she looked up, another girl was in her path. Beth swerves, trying to avoid the girl, but she fell and hit her head on the pavement. Later in this lesson, we will come back to Beth and explore the challenges she faces in school as a result of her head injury.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an acquired open or closed head injury caused by external force, causing an individual to become impaired in some way. It is one of the 14 disability categories listed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Impairments may include problems with language, memory, motor skills, behavior skills, judgment, or problem solving. If these impairments are significant enough to affect a student’s educational performance, he or she can qualify for special education services and accommodations.

It is important to note that TBI does not include brain problems that began during or before birth, are hereditary, or are degenerative.

Common Characteristics

Students with TBI may have problems with any combination of the following:

  • Short-term and long-term memory
  • Interacting with peers
  • Concentrating
  • Taking tests
  • Following directions with multiple steps
  • Learning new skills

Many students with TBI are evaluated and eventually qualify for special education services and accommodations. This was the case with Beth as she returned to school. Beth was struggling like she never had before. She often lost track of what she was supposed to be doing and could be found staring at her paper, unable to begin an assignment. Her teachers found that she rarely followed directions the first time and was constantly watching her peers to try and figure out what was going on.

She was skipping critical steps in her math work, forgetting what the teacher said earlier in the day, and struggling to understand new vocabulary words.


After observation, data collection, and formal evaluations, Beth was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, which was impacting her educational performance. Beth, her parents, and her teachers all participated in writing her individualized education plan (IEP) that included accommodations and teaching strategies to help Beth function in the classroom.Some of these accommodations included:

  • Using a daily planner to track classroom assignments and homework. Beth’s parents help her stay organized at home, and her teachers check in with her at school.
  • Breaking down vague or complex directions into clear, simple steps.

    Rather than announcing ‘Center time’ and expecting everyone to know exactly what that means, Beth’s teacher breaks down what ‘Center time’ should look like for her. Beth is given a laminated card with specific instructions for her center. It includes the name of her center, what materials she needs to take with her, step-by-step instructions on what to do, and how to let the teacher know when she is done.

  • Allowing for frequent breaks, which can help students with TBI calm down, recharge their batteries, and motivate them to do their best.

  • Excusal from taking notes. Rather than trying to take detailed notes during instruction time, Beth’s teachers would prefer that she put all of her energy into listening. Instead, Beth is given a copy of the teacher’s notes to follow along.
  • Allowing the use of a times tables chart. Beth’s class is learning beginning algebra, but Beth can no longer remember her times tables.

    This presents a huge challenge because she is now required to do additional work to complete one out of several steps to solve an equation. Allowing her to keep a times tables chart on her desk eliminates the need for her to recall multiplication facts or do extra work to find the answer.

As the school year progresses, Beth is eventually able to manage her assignments again. With the help of these accommodations, she is able to make it through the school day and still get some homework done. Her parents and teachers keep a close eye on her, and they know what to watch for.

Beth may never fully regain all of the skills she had before her accident, but she can learn how to cope with her weaknesses. She can become an advocate for herself, as she learns to recognize her own limits and strengths.

Lesson Summary

Traumatic brain injury is an acquired open or closed head injury causing an individual to become impaired in some way and is covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students who have experienced an injury to the head by external force can qualify for special education if their impairments affect their educational performance. Typical impairments include trouble concentrating, poor memory skills, lower cognitive performance, and issues with speech and language.As outlined in an individualized education plan (IEP), accommodations like the use of a times tables chart, excusal from taking notes, and frequent breaks may be appropriate to help students with TBI manage their school days and assignments. Not every student with TBI will respond to these accommodations, because every student has unique strengths and limitations.

However, all students are capable of making progress in school if teachers and parents work together effectively to address their students’ individual challenges.

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