With a rise in awareness in the world of sports regarding the strikingly prevalent danger of brain injury and its deleterious effects, there has been a corresponding increase in the development of various concussion protocols for returning to active participation in sports following an injury. These protocols are now the norm in the major sports leagues such as the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA. These “Return to Play” protocols are important for ensuring that athletes do not suffer a second concussion that can compound the damage of a not yet fully healed first one, causing an even more serious injury. Schools around the country are following suit, pushing for more training on concussions. In many school districts, concussion training for school athletic trainers and/or coaches is mandatory. There is also a considerable amount of discussion in the media about return to play policies at the school-age level. Just as professional athletes do, student athletes need to avoid the effects of compounding brain injuries. However, there is a subject that seems to be garnering less public conversation but is even more important than when a student may be “ready to play”. There is far too little discussion about an immensely more important topic, namely when a student is “ready to learn”.
School-age youth universally have one primary “job” in their lives, and that is to perform at their best in school classes. Though sports are enjoyable and often quite meaningful to students, only a tiny few will go on to earn a sports scholarship to college and just a small fraction of those will ever play professional sports. And even of this small fraction, only a handful will play more than a few years in professional sports. Sports are not likely to be any particular student’s full time future job. However, almost every single student’s future is tied in some way to his or her ability to learn information in a school setting. Most every job, and adult life in general, will require extensive dependence upon skills learned in the classroom such as writing and math.
School is similar to an adult’s full-time job as it encompasses the majority of daytime activities and requires a significant expenditure of cognitive energies on a daily basis to ensure performance at optimal levels. Pushing a child back to school too quickly post-injury can engender an inability to learn effectively which can lead to a downward spiral of emotional distress and academic failure. Schools need to work with parents and health professionals in order to create a plan for return to school after a brain injury, whether that injury be suffered on the playing field, in a car accident or by any other means. Not every child will be able to return quickly or to a full load of classes. Adjustments may be necessary to the schedule, format or setting of classes and school material. The child may require special assistance from aids, tutors and note-takers. The child may also benefit from breaks in the day to when he or she has crossed a threshold of cognitive overload. If injuries are particularly serious and long-lasting, a Section 504 plan may be necessary. The Brain Injury Association of Vermont has a sample return to learn protocol that can help guide parents, educators and health professionals as to when a child would likely be ready to healthily engage in different school tasks.
A healthy return to play protocol following a brain injury is important, but we need to remember that a child ultimately does not need to play a sport. However, every child most assuredly does need to learn in school. So let’s increase the discussion on “ready to learn” plans and needs!
Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: http://tlcrehab.org/