Back-to-school season comes around every year. But when you’ve had a traumatic brain injury, it changes the whole game! On top of the regular return-to-school nerves, you might be asking yourself questions like:
- How long should I wait after a concussion to return to school?
- What is it like to go back to school after a concussion?
- How do I adjust my study habits so I can succeed?
The good news is, that others have walked this road before. On the Post Concussion Podcast, host Bella Paige interviews students Madison Isaac and Madison Thacker. From high school to college, and at every level, there are stories and tools that can help guide you as you navigate school post-concussion.
What’s it like to start a new school year with a brain injury?
Starting a new school year, especially if you’re transitioning into high school or college, is already a big adjustment.
Madison Isaac was struggling with persistent headaches for months before doctors finally connected her symptoms to a concussion. Meanwhile, she was starting Grade 10 at a new high school. She describes the transition as being “a huge jump in workload, with heavier and longer classes.” For a while, she tried pushing through the headaches, almost forgetting that it’s not common to try to study or work through chronic pain.
Similarly, Madison Thacker faced a ton of frustration as she started college. “I had never struggled with school before,” she says. “It took a toll on my self-esteem. I struggled socially and had to deal with headaches during class.” For Thacker, college felt almost impossible at first.
It’s not unusual to feel that the expected challenges of a new school year feel more daunting while taking care of the layers of concussion recovery and mental health care that go into succeeding in this setting.
What are some of the challenges students with brain injuries face?
What many students and educators don’t realize right away is that high school and college are full of stimuli that can aggravate a concussion. In her episode with Thacker, Bella shares how “going to class is challenging because you’re overstimulated by students tapping pens, or the hum of the old buildings, or the bright lights in the classroom.”
Knowing that your environment may be affecting how you feel and function can help take some of the pressure off yourself. As you ease into a new school year, be aware that:
- Bright lights and screens, and noisy settings can lead to overstimulation
- You may need more time to study or take a test
- Focusing for long periods of time in class can tire you faster
- Needing to make changes to how you work can come with feelings of frustration and grief
There are great resources to help guide you and get support from your school. The CDC created a guide on returning to school after a concussion that outlines clear signs to look for about how you may be affected, what resources you might need, and symptoms you can let educators know about so they can support you with accommodations.
Finding understanding among teachers and peers
Being aware of how your concussion symptoms affect your learning and communicating with educators can help you find the understanding and support to succeed.
Throughout Isaac’s journey through high school, she became more successful as her self-awareness grew and she adapted. She reflects “my memory hasn’t been so great. So sometimes I can work or focus for 2 or 3 hours, but then I reach a point where I can’t do more than that. Things just don’t stick in my memory after that.”
For students facing similar struggles to Isaac, brain breaks are an important tool to make use of. Rest is so important to the process of concussion recovery and brain breaks make time for rest between short periods of focus. This balance of exertion and rest, and slowly increasing your level of challenge over time (called cognitive pacing), have shown a positive impact on post-concussion brain health.
Once you understand your needs, share them with your peers and educators. Isaac found support because, as she shares, “all of my high school teachers were aware of my headaches. So they understood if I needed an extra day for a project or to take a test on a better day.”
TIPS FOR NAVIGATING YOUR RETURN TO SCHOOL WITH A BRAIN INJURY
While there’s no hard and fast rule for how long you should wait to return to school after a concussion, be prepared to ease back in.
Here are some strategies you can use to make your transition smoother:
- Build your knowledge: Understand the symptoms of concussion and what aggravates your symptoms. Learn your own limits and comfort levels as you adapt to your learning environment.
- Communicate with educators: Your knowledge will equip you to express your needs. Educators want you to succeed and have resources to offer you that will make your workload more manageable.
- Build your support team: You’re much more likely to succeed with a support system of educators, specialists, your own doctors and therapists, family, and friends. Also, connect with others who share your experience. Knowing you’re not alone and seeing others achieve similar goals to yours can make all the difference.
- Tap into your school’s resources: Accommodations and accessibility resources are available through most schools, at all levels. Work with your school to determine what resources will support you most.
- Work from home or take online classes: Working from the comfort of your own study space gives you more control over your pacing and sensory setting. It will allow you to take breaks when you need to.
- Study in a dimly lit and quiet room: Building on the previous point, whether you work from home or from campus, try to find quiet and dim spaces to limit your chances of being overstimulated.
- Take brain breaks regularly: Again, give yourself periods of rest to break up your focused time. Your brain is working hard to focus and memorize, but it also needs time to process that information and recover.
- Be patient and keep going after your goals: Recovery takes time, and so does learning your limits. You may need to approach your goals at a slower pace so you can take care of your health at the same time, but you can definitely achieve them.
That leads to Thacker’s top piece of advice she wanted to give students with post-concussion symptoms: put your health first. You can always go back to school and adapt your pace and process, but your physical and mental health are precious.
FINDING ACCEPTANCE AND ACHIEVING YOUR GOALS
Thacker started college feeling overwhelmed and in grief. “I’m on my way to graduating,” she shares, “I thought that was impossible before. I just had to come to terms with my own timeline.”
When going back to school, you may experience frustration and grief at first, because it can be difficult to accept how your learning style has changed. But accepting how your brain works post-concussion and staying focused on your goals will help you achieve all you set out to do.
For Thacker, getting through her grief led her to her calling: becoming a journalism student who shares stories of concussion recovery. She hopes to help others realize they can achieve similar goals and change the overall narrative about concussions and recovery.
REVEALING THE INVISIBLE INJURY
For Isaac, Thacker, and Bella, among others, their stories are driven by self-awareness and advocacy. They navigated school post-concussion by learning about their symptoms and expressing their needs to their schools.
Concussion is an invisible injury. It can go unnoticed if students and educators don’t have the awareness to recognize how it affects learning and attention at school. Sharing stories is one way to change the conversation.
I've had my own experiences with concussion that led me to create my own strategy for bringing visibility to this invisible injury. I founded Neurovine so I could do just that—create a device that uses EEG technology to track mental exertion levels, encourage rest, and support gradual recovery.
My research and technology offer a way to measure the impacts of concussion and recovery methods, to come up with the most streamlined and supportive way to promote brain health.
Everyone’s concussion experience is different. Many people feel alone during concussion recovery, but concussions are common injuries. It’s just that they can go unnoticed.
As you return back to school post-concussion, use these tools to build your self-awareness and advocate for your needs. Know that sharing your story can help you get the resources you need, and can also inspire and connect you with others facing similar challenges.
- The Post Concussion Podcast - Learning Your Limits with Dr. Ashleigh Kennedy
- The Post Concussion Podcast - Life After A Brain Injury
- Sickboy: ZAP!!! Electrocuted Into a Concussion
- Sickboy: Concussion
- Concussions From a University Athlete Perspective: Are We Bridging the Gap?
- School and the Concussed Youth – Recommendations for Concussion Education and Management
- After a concussion, students need flexibility and understanding at school, new guidebook says