Grant could make UO concussion program a national model

Brain scans

The University of Oregon’s Center on Brain Injury Research and Training has long been at the forefront nationwide in developing best practices to help students with brain injuries successfully transition back to school.

It will soon be able to determine the effectiveness of one program that came out of its research.

The center recently entered into a four-year, $2.2 million cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate the effectiveness of the brain injury center’s Return to School model of supporting students with traumatic brain injury.

With the funding, UO researchers will compare school districts served by the High Desert Education Service District in Central Oregon, which has used the center’s Return to School program since 1994, with schools in Ohio and Washington that have no formal procedures in place to help students after a traumatic brain injury.

Ann Glang, director of the brain injury center, and Deanne Unruh, director of the Secondary Special Education and Transition research unit in the UO’s College of Education, are leading the study. The research team, which includes Daniel Anderson and Jeff Gau from the College of Education, aims to quantify the effectiveness of a model that has transformed the approach of helping students return to academic and social life after traumatic brain injury.

Although hospitals treat children and adolescents with traumatic brain injury in their initial course of recovery, it is ultimately the school system that serves as the long-term provider of services to those students.

Key components of an effective Return to School program include identification, screening and assessment; communication between medical and educational systems; tracking student progress; and professional development for school personnel. Activities are guided by a multidisciplinary team that includes the student, parents, educators, health professionals and others.  

The Central Oregon Traumatic Brain Injury Team incorporates all four components of the program. The team, in partnership with Central Oregon medical providers, supports students from the time of injury to ensure a successful return to school, in the classroom and on the playing field.

Students receive timely support, such as allowing flexibility in their workload or attendance, providing rest breaks to reduce symptoms like headaches and fatigue, or postponing taking final exams.

“This is a very new area of research,” Glang said. “It is important because we know that about 12 percent of kids with a concussion or mild injuries are going to still have problems at school one year later. We want to examine efforts by schools to prevent those problems.”

The key is to ensure injured students get the help they need and keep any problems from getting worse.

“The idea is to not allow the injury to be a life-altering event, and to put in place an intervention that will stop the cycle of failure or the need to access more intensive support systems,” said Melissa McCart, a faculty member at the brain injury center who serves as its liaison with the Central Oregon team and others throughout Oregon.

The study will collect data on students and measure the effect of the model on students’ health, academic and social outcomes.

“Another key area we will be interested in is cross-system collaboration,” Unruh said. “We are evaluating a model in which the medical community, families and schools work together to ensure positive outcomes for students are achieved. This evaluation provides us an opportunity to test this cross-system collaboration.”

The Centers for Disease Control will look at results from the project and determine which elements they can roll out to schools nationally.

“This research is unique in that it allows us to evaluate an existing model of support for students with brain injuries, rather than develop a new approach that may take years to translate into practice,” Glang said. “This helps us close that research-practice gap.”

By Jim Murez, University Communications