Understanding Traumatic Brain Injury

Students who have experienced a TBI/concussion may have a diverse range of physical, cognitive, behavioral, and social needs. A team effort is required to effectively address and respond to these needs. The student, the family, school personnel, and service providers must collaborate to ensure that the student receives the support necessary to successfully reenter school. This resource document provides information to assist in promoting the importance and value of an integrated delivery of services.

What is TBI?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a TBI as a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014). A disruption in the normal functioning occurs when any one of the following symptoms occurs:

  • Any period of loss of or decreased consciousness;
  • Any loss of memory for events immediately before or after the injury;
  • Neurologic deficits such as muscle weakness, loss of balance or coordination, disruption of vision, change in speech and language, or sensory loss;
  • Any alteration in mental state at the time of injury such as confusion, disorientation, slowed thinking, or difficulty with concentration. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014)

Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) vs. Traumatic Brain Injury

An acquired brain injury is brain damage caused by events after birth, rather than as part of a genetic or congenital disorder, while a traumatic brain injury occurs only when an external force traumatically injures the brain. A traumatic brain injury is a type of acquired brain injury, but all acquired brain injuries are not traumatic brain injuries.


A TBI can be classified as mild, moderate or severe, depending on the extent of damage to the brain. However, the term “mild” can be deceiving. Even a concussion can have long-term effects, especially if additional concussions occur. The effects can be cumulative. With any TBI, symptom manifestations can be delayed or intensified as the student ages and reaches the next developmental level, where cognitive tasks become more complex. For this reason, many times parents and educators may not associate the student’s academic struggles or behavioral changes with a traumatic brain injury that occurred years before.

Student Needs

When a student sustains a brain injury, his/her educational and emotional needs are often very different than before the injury. As a result, some, but not all students, may require special education services. Federal regulations and state rules define TBI as a special education eligibility category.