A lot of varied activity goes on in a typical ABE classroom. Students are at different skill and motivation levels and bring different experiences to the classroom. ABE teachers may need to adjust their instructional approach (e.g. repetition) and expectations (e.g. patience) depending on the topic, the student, the primary language, etc. The student with a brain injury will require these skills and more. It is essential to understand how the learning environment affects the student’s ability to focus attention and sustain learning activity.

Adapting the Learning Environment

Common effects of brain injury are attention, concentration and sensory sensitivity.  Someone with a recent brain injury may still be experiencing headaches, occasional dizziness, and blurred or double vision.

In the chapter on Interview Questions, you will find suggestions for finding out what the student knows about these problems.

Reducing Sources of Distraction

For the student with a brain injury, distraction can come not just from the presence of others in the room but also from:

  • excessive noise (including the kind of humming generated by machines and florescent lights)
  • bright lights, and
  • movement within the peripheral field of vision

In many cases, a separate room is not available for this individual to do his or her work.  But it will be advantageous to create a place in a corner and away from traffic areas, where the person has his or back to the rest of the room, where lights can be dimmed if necessary, and where noises are minimized.

This is not to say that all the student’s work should be done alone. Given the social isolation experienced by many individuals post brain injury, the ABE classroom may be a welcome opportunity for them to socialize. Thus, small group activity with other fairly calm individuals may offer both instructional and social advantages.

Avoiding Conflict

If the person has demonstrated impaired executive functioning of the disinhibited type (See Identification and Diagnosis chapter below), it is important to avoid, if possible, encounters with other students that can arouse an outburst or cause hurt feelings in others. As teachers, you are no doubt familiar with the need to schedule certain students at different times or keep them separated.

Most students with a brain injury can be reasoned with if they haven’t lost control. They can join in problem solving and may be able to contribute ideas for how to avoid a conflict once it occurs. Beforehand, they are likely to insist it isn’t going to happen and, in fact, they may maintain this position even after several conflicts have occurred. They may refuse to accept responsibility and/or they may simply be unable to control their behavior under some circumstances. In this case, scheduling certain students at different times may be the only option.

Helping the Student Stay Organized

Developing routine procedures and places to keep things is particularly important for someone post brain injury. Whenever one can think of a way to organize or simplify a task, it will likely increase the student’s sense that things are under control and sustain motivation to keep on trying.

Strengthening Motivation Through Teamwork

Students with a brain injury usually present an uneven profile of capabilities. In some academic areas, the knowledge and skills they possessed before injury will be well preserved. In other areas, they will likely face rebuilding or relearning what is no longer accessible to them. It may be good to pair students whose capabilities compliment each other so they may feel encouraged and rewarded by the exchange of help. The benefits of peer coaching can apply here, too.

Adjusting Expectations

Pace of Accomplishment

One change most individuals with lasting effects of brain injury will experience is slowed information processing. A more severely injured person may not be aware of the change. Those persons with repetitive concussions or a single, mild-to-moderate brain injury may be more self aware, and thus frustrated with how long it takes to respond to what they are hearing or reading and to complete a task.

The challenge in this case is to calibrate the student’s expectations as well as the teacher’s, so lessons are appropriately paced and more frequent rewards available. When the ultimate goal is to pass tests and earn a GED, the person may lose heart with slower than normal progress. Thus, creating the means to mark progress frequently along the way is important to sustaining effort.

Coping with Fatigue

Further contributing to a slower pace of accomplishment is fatigue. For almost all students with a history of brain injury, the concentration required to learn will be tiring and will limit the student’s enthusiasm for study if feeling overtired is associated with learning.

Not only will the teacher have to adjust for a slower pace, but also, the time spent on a lesson should be segmented into shorter intervals. It may work to alternate two kinds of lessons during a learning session — for example, 12-15 min. on one and 12-15 min. on another for an hour with a break in the middle. This approach will work best when each lesson draws on very different kinds of attention and concentration — e.g., visual vs. auditory, or reading vs. listening. Working with manipulatives offers an even better break from both reading and listening.

Dealing with Lack of Motivation/Initiation

If slower pace and fatigue aren’t enough, there will also be students whose brain injury has reduced initiative and the energy they bring to a task. In their minds, they may sincerely want to earn the GED. But now the brain may not cooperate in generating the effort required. If the student also tends to prefer staying with one learning activity rather than moving to something new, the teacher will have to take a stronger than expected lead in moving the student forward.

Among students with ADHD or an excessive amount of independence and resistance to authority, stronger leadership might not work. But someone whose apparent lack of energy and initiative are attributable to a brain injury will likely follow in a new direction when asked.


For the student with a brain injury, it is important to work with the person to understand the circumstances under which they learn best. In this case, the teacher must be especially mindful of the learning environment of the classroom, as well as ways to adapt learning materials.

For students with multiple disabilities, the Classroom Challenges chapter in Physical Disabilities Section may be helpful.