Return to Learn Concussion Protocol: Evaluating Student Athletes

Return to Learn Concussion Protocol: Evaluating Student Athletes

As with any injury, recovery is a process - In the case of concussions, the injury may not be obvious.

A ‘return to learn concussion protocol’ is a gradual, step-wise process that ensures that academic activities do not worsen symptoms after a concussion. The NCAA has mandated that institutions develop return to learn policies to support college level athletes return to the classroom effectively (Runyon et al., 2020).

What is a concussion?

Concussions are traumatic brain injuries, often caused by a direct blow to the head. Broadly, concussions involve:

  • The rapid onset of short-lived impairment of neurological function that can develop into prolonged impairment.
  • Acute signs and symptoms that reflect functional deficits.

A concussion may or may not involve the loss of consciousness. The presence of or loss of consciousness cannot be a determinant of concussion severity.

Recommended course: Back to the Books: Return to Learn Strategies for Concussed Student-Athletes

Return to learn concussion protocol for student-athletes

As with any injury, recovery is a process. In the case of concussions, the injury may not be obvious. Especially for young people, the struggle to adjust post-injury may be cognitive more than physical. Student athletes may struggle academically following a concussion and care should be taken when returning them to the classroom.

Specifically, a return-to-learn concussion protocol refers to the process of reintegrating student-athletes back into their academic routines after a concussion. As with any brain injury, recovery will be individualized. However, the following are the general principles included in a return-to-learn concussion protocol.

Immediate assessment

When a student-athlete sustains an injury that may include a concussion, immediately remove the student from sports play. A qualified healthcare professional should conduct an initial assessment to determine the concussion's immediate severity. A concussion expert will later make an official diagnosis.

Recommended course: Management of Sports-Related Concussions: Staying Ahead of the Game

Medical clearance

A medical professional with concussion care diagnosis and recovery knowledge must first see the student-athlete. Once the athlete completes any treatments they prescribe, he or she will be cleared to return to academics and possibly sports.

Before inclusion in both, obtain medical documentation from the clearing healthcare professional. This documentation should outline the concussion's severity and recommendations for academic and sports accommodations.

Establish communication

A critical and often overlooked step of a return to learn concussion protocol is open communication between parents, coaches, teachers, and healthcare professionals. This ensures a coordinated team approach to the student athlete's recovery.

Teachers should be aware of the student's concussion and work with the team to create individualized academic accommodations. Schedule a meeting with appropriate school personnel, including teachers, administrators, nurses, and special education coordinators, to discuss the student's condition and the return to learn plan.

Develop an academic plan

Prior to returning a student to the classroom, a 504 plan, or a formalized individualized academic plan, may be necessary to support the athlete during their recovery. A 504 plan may include accommodations like:

  • Reduced workload
  • Extended time for assignments
  • Modified homework assignments
  • Additional breaks during the school day
  • Access to a quiet and low-stimulus environment.
  • Attendance flexibility
  • Any other adjustment to their academic life

Development of this plan must include an analysis of the student's academic performance before the concussion, current cognitive or concentration difficulties, academic load, and other specific areas of concern.

Returning to a full academic load

A 504 plan should also include steps for a gradual return to the student's full academic load. This is a phased approach, increasing academic expectations as the student demonstrates improved cognitive function.

As part of the return to normalcy, regularly communicate with the student and assess their academic performance before and after the concussion. Schedule regular reviews of the custom plan to assess the student's progress and make any necessary adjustments.

Encourage the student to communicate their needs and take an active role in their academic recovery. The goal is to foster independence while providing support. Recognize the emotional impact of a concussion and ensure that the student has access to counseling and support services as needed.

Monitor symptoms and progress

After reintegration, continue to monitor the student for symptoms like headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and sensitivity to light or noise. If symptoms persist or worsen, consult with a healthcare professional and adjust any academic and physical activities accordingly. Remember, each concussion is unique, and the return to learn process should be individualized based on the student athlete's specific symptoms, needs, and progress.


This article was written by Amy Ashmore, PhD.

This article was written by Amy Ashmore, PhD

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