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Study Confirms Adverse Effect of Concussion On Academic Learning And Performance of Children and Teens

Recommends targeted school-based management to mitigate effects, reduce student and parent concerns, and lower risk of prolonged recovery


Student-athletes who experience lingering concussion symptoms and their parents worry more about the negative effect of concussion on learning and school performance, report more school-related problems, and more classes posing difficulty than students who recover more quickly, finds a new study.

The study found that high school students who have not yet fully recovered from concussion (e.g. have returned to baseline on neurocognitive tests and are no longer experiencing concussion symptoms) are particularly vulnerable to school-related problems relative to elementary and middle school students.  

Not surprisingly, the study also reports that the severity of post-concussion symptoms is directly related to the extent of school-related problems experienced by students, no matter the grade.

Teacher at blackboard

Despite growing recognition that a concussion can negatively affect children and adolescents in various aspects of their lives, including home, school, social relationships, and sports, and a developing consensus on the need for evidence-based guidelines to govern a gradual return-to-school process for students recovering from concussion (a consensus which prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2013 clinical report to recommend a framework for multidisciplinary care to support students' return to learning), the study is the first to examine the nature and extent of the academic effects of concussions among student-athletes.

The study notes that "poorly specified or inconsistent recommendations across providers and a lack of standard communication channels between medical teams and school personnel" often contribute to student-athletes experiencing academic problems after concussion, but that the association between symptoms and adverse academic effects identified in the study "highlights the key role of the medical-school partnership in guiding a successful return to school." 

Identifies three needs 

Writing in the journal Pediatrics, lead author Danielle Ransom, a postdoctoral fellow at Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues said the findings identified three practical needs:

  1. A need to reassure students and families that the school will support return to learning.  "The high level of concern about postinjury school performance implies the need to deliver early reassurance to students and families that their academic needs will be met," writes Ransom.
  2. A need to provide targeted support, particularly at the high school level.   "[T]he range of reported postinjury problems ... [such as] increased time spent on homework, headaches interfering with learning, suggests a need to provide actively symptomatic students with targeted supports during the postinjury period," Ransom said, "particularly for older students, who face greater academic demands [than their] younger peers."
  3. A need to develop and implement a symptom-relevant set of academic accommodations. To minimize the risk that adverse postinjury academic effects of concussion, such as failure to complete homework, problems keeping pace with an increased workload, and the perception by students and parents that symptoms are being poorly controlled, will lead to potentially negative outcomes, including the onset of depression and anxiety and a prolonged recovery, the authors recommend the development of a symptom-relevant set of academic accommodations for students recovering from concussion, with school personnel implementing, monitoring, and adjusting supports throughout the recovery period.  The study recognizes that there is currently no expert consensus on a protocol for return to school during concussion recovery. "It is imperative that any standardized protocol of post-injury academic recommendations is predicated on an empirically-based understanding of the academic effects of concussion, not just speculation," writes Ransom. "By examining the frequency and types of academic issues faced by students during concussion recovery, and what students are most affected, evidence-based guidelines can be developed for guiding the return to school."

Important study 

"This work provides very important evidence - the first of its kind - to document the level of concern about academic functioning that students and their parents have while they are still in recovery from a concussion," said sports concussion neuropsychologist Neal McGrath of the Sports Concussion New England, who was not involved in the study. McGrath viewed the study as "strong work from neuropsychologists who have led the way in our understanding of return-to-learn issues."

Importantly, noted McGrath, the study's findings " are very consistent with the clinical observations reported by many concussion management specialists over the past several years, namely, that symptomatic students often experience very substantial problems in school, that they often find more difficulty in classes involving math and greater reading demands, and that these issues are more prominent at the high school level where academic pressure is greater." McGrath shared the author's recommendation that, "What students in concussion recovery need at school is individualized support for their symptoms and learning problems." (Such an individualized approach is also recommended by the AAP in its 2013 clinical report)

McGrath's comments were echoed by sports concussion neuropsychologist Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, author of Ahead of the Game: A Parents' Guide to Youth Sports Concussion and Director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey. It "reinforces what we as clinicians have all along suspected in our practices, and now provides data for advocacy efforts in schools," said Moser.