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Rehab For The Brain: Returning To School Post-Concussion

Lauren Silverman

A healed body doesn’t always mean a healed brain.

Nearly half of all reported sports concussions occur during high school football. And even when a student is ready to get back on the field, they might not be ready to return to class.

For weeks after his concussion, Graham Hill felt sick. His stomach hurt, he was exhausted, and there was a pressure in his skull –like a balloon was being inflated in his head, he says.

“It’s like a migraine on steroids,” Graham says.

After a few weeks, Graham’s body was in good enough shape to return to Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, but his brain wasn’t. The instructions from the doctor were simple: Do nothing.

“Sit in a dark room,” Graham remembers, “no electronics, no reading, no loud noises.”

Graham, a junior at the time, missed two weeks of classes, and wasn’t back as a regular full-time student for months. It was all planned — part of an academic rehab program at Trinity Christian Academy.

Brain Recovery

Recovering from a concussion — whether it’s from a car wreck, fall, or a football collision – can take months.

For a student taking six or seven classes, and applying to college, trying to give the brain a rest can be a challenge.

But it’s crucial.

Credit Jeffrey McWhorter Photography
Coaches, teachers, parents and students now work together to recover academically, as well as physically after a concussion at Texas Christian Academy in Addison.

Dr. Gerard Gioia, Division Chief of Neuropsychology and director of the Safe Concussion Outcome, Recovery & Education (SCORE) Program at Children’s National Health System, says taking the necessary time to let the brain heal is a must. 

“The force that applies to the brain [from a concussion] basically moves the brain tissue inside back and forth, stretches and strains, releases chemicals,” he says. “It effects the way the electrical transmission occurs.”

“So when that force is applied, I often say that software system of the brain is now impaired and all of the functions that software runs, your thinking, behavior, emotions, your sleep, can potentially be impaired as well.” 

While going back to school isn’t dangerous, Gioia says, teachers across the country are noticing many students who’ve suffered concussions are drained of energy and distracted by migraines.

“So any given school has to be prepared,” he says. “And at this point both the public and the private school systems are scrambling to try and get themselves on board.”

Academic Rehab 

Janie Heard is Assistant Head of the Upper School and in charge of academic rehab at Trinity Christian Academy. It’s her job to make sure students, teachers and parents all understand how much work a kid who’s had a concussion can handle.

After consulting with a student’s doctor, Heard helps teachers simplify and alter curriculum. They might take extra time to tutor a student one-on-one, or change the format of exams from written to oral.

“Our goal is to get each student back to where they were academically before the brain injury. And it’s different for every one of these kids.”

In the past four years, Heard has helped 120 students ease back in to classes and school work after a concussion.

“One thing is screens are difficult for the concussed kids,” Heard says. “In our schools we use screens all the time now, we have overheads, smart boards, constantly, so our kids know they have to put their head down in class if a screen is being used when if they’re recovering, they’re light sensitive they’ll wear sunglasses.”

Sometimes, though, Heard has to argue with students or parents who are afraid of getting behind.

On-Time Graduation 

Thanks to fewer quizzes and tutoring, Graham Hill didn’t get behind in school work. He did have to wait to take college placement tests because his brain was still not healed. Still, he was accepted at the University of Mississippi and plans to study public relations in fall of 2015.

Here’s a list of helpful links for parents, teachers and coaches from the Children’s Medical Center:

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Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.