Traumatic Brain Injury and Its Effects on Students

Updated on September 30, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor splits his time being a special education teacher and a freelance writer.


A Case Study of Two Students

An accident changed Thomas’s young life. Once described by his parents as a “straight A” student with many potentials, Thomas ended up in a car accident that left him with a severe head injury.

The scars on his head healed and were barely visible. But, he was far from his normal self. The accident caused severe damage to his brain. He has had trouble processing information and needed time to comprehend written passages. Although Thomas retained some of his academic skills, he began to struggle in school. Eventually, he became eligible for special education services throughout his remaining school years. Despite being designated as a student with a specific learning disorder, Thomas still had a chance at college with accommodations provided.

Another student was not so fortunate after his accident. At a young age, Pedro fell off the bed of a moving truck. This time, the scars never healed and the damage was a lot worse than Thomas's.

He had a permanent indentation on the side of his head. In addition, the brain damage left him partially paralyzed and intellectually disabled. With short-term memory and an inability to compete educationally with his non-disabled peers, his prognosis for the future was grim; he needed assistance after his school years.

Although their accidents affected them in different ways, they received the same designation within the special education program at their respective schools. Their Individual Education Plan (IEP) contained a curious phrase on the Eligibility page: “…due to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), he qualifies for special education services.”

What is TBI?

TBI, as commonly known by special educators, is an affliction to the brain that results in varying degrees of physical or mental disabilities. It’s not a condition one is born with; however, it is debilitating, none-the-less. In addition, those effects can be drastic.

The book, Exceptional Learners: An Introduction to Special Education by Daniel P. Hallarhan and James Kauffman gives a detailed definition for the condition. Its authors define TBI as:

  • Being an Injury to the brain caused by an external force.
  • Not being caused by a degenerative or congenital condition
  • Causing a diminished or altered state of consciousness.
  • Creating neurological or neurobehavioral dysfunction.

Essentially, the most common cause are car accidents

Its Causes

As mentioned, TBI is not something a person is born with or is a result of genetics. There are cases of brain damage caused by a degenerative disease; however many specialists contend that this is not part of the causes of TBI. Instead, TBI is characterized as head trauma caused by unnatural means.

Essentially, the most common cause are car accidents and falls. The two students in the case study are examples. However, there are other factors, too. These include:

  • Blows to the head from blunt force.
  • Numerous concussions
  • A fall from a significant height (especially if one lands on his/her head)
  • Being shaken by parent or adult (shaken baby syndrome)
  • Near drowning (when oxygen is deprived to the brain)

These causes don’t have to happen when the individual was a baby or toddler. It can happen any time to adults or the elderly.


Effects TBI Has on Students

TBI effects will vary, thus creating a challenge for teachers to accommodate/ modify their lesson plans, let alone place them in the appropriate program. Memory loss or problems with attaining memory (short or long term) tend to be the most common - and mildest - form of the condition. However, considering how fragile the brain can be, many other factors may occur.

Some students with TBI are prone to:

  • Seizures
  • Paralysis
  • Diminished cognitive abilities
  • Psychological trauma (this includes PTSD in some cases)
  • Developmental or emotional disorders
  • Memory, auditory or visual processing disorders (slow processing time)

In many respects, the conditions created by TBI can exist on a spectrum from moderate symptoms to severe, life changing effects. In many cases, it can affect a person’s quality of life, and, possibly prematurely shorten it.


Special Education Law Addresses TBI

The federal law,Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA), classifies TBI as one of several specific learning disorders that qualify for special education services within the public school system.

Due to this designation, students with TBI are eligible for various programs within the school system or public agencies that serve those with disabilities (such as the Department of Rehabilitation or regional centers). Often, the services at public schools are:

  • Speech therapy
  • Psychological or DIS counseling.
  • Accommodations/modifications
  • Placement in SDC, RSP, SAI, or CBI courses, based on severity of the condition.
  • Work programs such as Workability
  • Adaptive PE (which Pedro had)

In some cases, the student may have one-on-one instructional assistants to help them in the classroom.

Depending of the severity of their condition, students with TBI may have more than a case-carrier monitoring them.

Lately, special education directors and coordinators for various school districts hired outside help to deal with students with TBI. One case that comes to mind involved a student named Jeffery. This particular student survived being run over by speeding car.He spent several months in a coma and nearly a year in a body cast.

His progress in education was compounded by TBI. He struggled to remember daily routines such as catching the bus (or the process of getting onto one) or showing up to the right class on time (it wasn’t surprising for him to show for his 4th period class, believing it was his 1st).

Due to his condition, the district hired specialists from LACOE (Los Angeles County of Education) and a private firm dealing exclusively with TBI to observe and coordinate programs for him.

Depending of the severity of their condition, students with TBI may have more than a case-carrier monitoring them. They may have nearly the entire school looking after their educational needs.

The Educational Path

Thomas, Pedro and Jeffrey received special education services throughout their primary and secondary school years. Based on the severity of their condition, two took different educational paths after high school (Jeffery is, of this writing a high school junior).

Thomas had a brighter future, despite suffering from the occasional memory lapse or mood swings. Although he had to take special education courses in English, he was mainstreamed into general education for most of his courses. He graduated with a diploma.

Pedro’s conditions were severe. He earned a certificate of completion from his high school. Afterward, he enrolled in an adult transition program offered by the district (the program collaborated with the Department of Rehabilitation). He continued with this program until age 22. He remaind a dependent with his parents while working at a local business.

Jeffery has a long road ahead of him. He takes several SAI courses and, at time, shows cognitive abilities that are on par with his peers. However, memory lapses, speech impediments and other issues caused by TBI has made his school experience extremely challenging. There is a possibility that he may have to take an extra year of school to finish his credits, be home-schooled, attend an alternative school within the district, or be rebranded as a CBI student (community Based Instructions), which Pedro belonged to.

How to Approach TBI?

If anything, the paths the three students took (or are taking) proves that one education plan doesn’t fit all. These students had IEPs for a reason; their conditions were unique and the plans called for individual goals and specialized programs.

TBI affects students in different ways. Therefore, the education offered needs to fit their needs. Some may not need much other than a few accommodations while others need major modifications to their curriculum. In addition, their conditions can affect their post-secondary paths.

For instance, it was last reported that Thomas entered junior college while Pedro is working at a nearby fast food franchise. Jeffery’s future is still open, but it’s beginning to look bleak. A new course of action will be needed when it is time for his annual IEP meeting.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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    © 2019 Dean Traylor


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