Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury: Where Do We Go From Here?

Roberta DePompei, The ASHA Leader
Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury

"She is a beautiful 4-year-old. She was in the hospital for several months and has a severe brain injury. She can't speak and has difficulty maintaining balance for sitting. She is more like a 2-year-old than a 4-year-old. We know there are many challenges before us in getting all the services she will need throughout her life." 
— Jessica's parents, who found their daughter comatose in her crib
at the age of 3 weeks, injured while in the care of her nanny.

"I have headaches and can't concentrate in school. I am a little impatient with my friends, and they don't call like they used to. Maybe I am just over-stressed with sports and schoolwork?" 
— Kiesha, 17, a varsity volleyball player, one year after sustaining a concussion
when she hit her head on the gym floor and was returned to play in that game
against the recommendation of the athletic trainer.

"Our son is now 11 and has begun to do poorly in school. We can't figure out what is bothering him. He was a great student until third grade, but he just can't keep up anymore. His friends are a little on the wild side and influence him to do bad things. He is physically fine. Maybe he should play sports and get rid of some of this energy."
— Matthew's parents, discussing academic and behavioral changes in their son,
who was hit by a car when he was 8 years old. Matthew was unconscious for 24 hours,
hospitalized for three days, and discharged home with no further recommendations. 

"I served in Iraq. I was injured in a blast and have been home for 11 months. I was discharged and tried working at my old job as a manager at a local pizza shop. But I just could not take the chaos and noise there. I am now enrolled in a local university. Keeping organized for classes, recalling assignments, and listening to lectures is really difficult. Maybe I need counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. But I was told I only have a minor leg injury and really don't qualify for any service-related assistance. There doesn't seem to be anyone here in the community who knows what I should do."
— Marvin, a 21-year-old who was injured in Iraq
and now is considering dropping out of college. 

These quotes — from real families and individuals dealing with traumatic brain injury (TBI) — illustrate the spectrum of traumatic brain injuries and the resulting complexities. The families' words also convey frustrations that can result from a lack of awareness about TBI and its implications for children, adolescents, and young adults, as brain development continues into their 20s.

Some common factors in these experiences are relevant to speech-language pathologists who may be called upon to treat communication difficulties in children and adolescents with TBI:

  • The effects of a TBI in childhood are not fully realized right away and, in fact, new challenges can emerge after the individual has become an adult.
  • The full scope of cognitive-communicative issues that results from a TBI often are not recognized in school and community environments, and sometimes, not even at home.
  • There is a lack of recognition of the full scope of cognitive and communication issues and their impact on lifelong learning and living; as a result, there are significant gaps in the available research, especially with respect to evidence-based methods that are likely to improve outcomes for this population.
  • Considerable information exists based on expert opinion about how practitioners and caregivers can support cognition and communication throughout development, but this information is not widely disseminated.

Although professionals often discuss and present on these concerns, positive strides have been made in the past decade and sufficient information exists to guide young TBI patients, their families, and the clinicians who treat them. These advances include increased information about cognitive communication after TBI, research on post-TBI developmental issues, and resources for best practice.

Immediate Effects 

Cognitive communication is the ability to use language and underlying skills such as attention, memory, self-awareness, organization, and problem-solving skills to communicate effectively. Cognitive communication combines thinking skills with language. Language skills may appear to have returned after brain injury, particularly in nonstressful situations. However, when the child most needs to communicate at home, in school, and in the community, the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of communication demands can result in decreased language performance. Changes are most likely to be seen at school under the pressures of time, grades, assignments, the struggle to keep up with curricular requirements, and social pragmatic interactions (DePompei & Blosser, 2003).

The entire spectrum of TBI — from mild through severe injuries—can have an effect on cognitive-communication issues and the complex academic learning and social interactions that can be involved.

A history of a mild brain injury is considered a significant factor that may preclude an athlete from returning to play and may necessitate academic accommodations. The effects of moderate injuries typically are better understood as causing academic struggles as well as an inability to develop adequate social skills. Individuals with severe injuries uniformly receive specialized accommodations in school and community environments within the special education category of TBI.

Strategic learning is essential for success at all educational and social levels and often does not develop properly in students with TBI. Strategic learning, an important function that underlies the brain's capacity to learn, is the ability to extract important information while inhibiting the unimportant features of that information. When a student is presented with a new learning task, the student's ability to identify meaningful information, generalize or abstract this information, and store it for future use may be impaired. Thus, this student may store details related to less important information and be unable to recall the gist of the new learning task efficiently or successfully. Language and cognitive communicative difficulties are often at the root of these problems and treatment is usually indicated (Blosser & DePompei, 2003; Chapman et al., 1999).

Receptive language skills also may be affected and the student may appear not to hear well. In many circumstances, a hearing assessment reveals normal hearing but delayed auditory-processing capacities. The student who may have difficulty processing what is said or written may ask for multiple repetitions, have poor vocabulary recognition, and have difficulty following instructions or remembering what was said.

Certain situations such as blast trauma, however, can result in impaired hearing acuity. Therefore, a hearing assessment to rule out or identify a hearing loss should be completed when any receptive language skill is questioned.

Long-term Challenges 

Developmental stages and challenges after TBI can be overlooked because of the erroneous belief that a child who "looks okay" must "be okay." Therefore, if an educational, behavioral, or social problem emerges several years after an injury, the link between observed problems and a past TBI often is overlooked (Chapman et al., 1999; Yeates & Taylor, 2006; Turkstra et al., 2008).

Unlike TBI in an adult, an injury to a child's brain affects an organ that is still developing. It is often believed that an immature brain may be more plastic or resilient, allowing children to "bounce back" more easily after a TBI. However, recent research demonstrates that the younger a child at the time of injury, the greater the possibility of long-term developmental challenges (Yeates & Taylor, 2006; Turkstra et al., 2008; Babikian & Asarnow, 2009; Hawley et al., 2004).

The full impact of an injury to a young brain can become evident over time as the brain fails to mature at the same rate as the child's physical growth and development. Young children's cognitive impairments may not be obvious immediately following an injury, but become apparent as the child gets older and faces increasing expectations for new learning and independent, socially appropriate behavior. For example, Chapman, Gamino, and Cook (2009) state that many youths who have experienced a TBI recover to near-normal levels in early-developing, basic cognitive functions such as memory and vocabulary acquisition. However, youths with TBI often are found to have decreased academic and social performance that worsens through adolescence; specific reasons for this performance decline are unclear.

Chapman (2006) and Gamino et al. (2009) indicated that TBI in childhood can be followed by a significant decrease in cognitive, social, or behavioral skills at the time of injury and also by a later "stall" (possibly years later) during which failure to develop cognitive, behavioral, or social skills affects learning and the ability to maintain friends and jobs. Figure 1 [PDF] outlines these potential times—immediate and delayed—for loss of learning and social development. Most efforts in rehabilitation focus on the initial dip; few supports are provided for developmental complications—the "stall"—that can occur years later.

Given this delay in TBI effects, a student's cognitive-communication skill development should be followed in the schools and community until high school graduation. These periodic checks are essential to determine if the student's language learning is sufficient in all developmental stages. The sidebar on p. 18 offers a suggested starting place for following the cognitive-communicative development of these students.

Resources and Supports 

In the past several years, many organizations, materials, and websites have disseminated information about children and TBI. These resources include:

  • Newspapers and magazines.The general public's interest in pediatric TBI has increased with articles and YouTube videos about concussion and sports injuries. Information about returning military personnel and TBI also has increased public awareness about the cognitive-communicative issues that can alter a person's ability to perform in school and the community.
  • Journals. Recent issues of Brain Injury Professional, Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, and Neurorehabilitation have focused on pediatrics.
  • National agencies and organizations. ASHA, the Brain Injury Association of America, the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation Research, and the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration are advocating for the needs of this population, providing information and materials and offering training opportunities.
  • Websites. See the sidebar on p. 20 for a list of sites that provide significant amounts of information, training, and intervention materials for pediatric TBI.
  • Colleagues. Many professionals share their research and clinical work. Of special interest to SLPs is the website created by the late Mark Ylvisaker, which includes tutorials about underlying processes and methods for analysis, diagnosis, and treatment of cognitive-communicative challenges.

National Plan 

An additional contribution was made by the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation. In January 2009, this foundation brought together 50 researchers, clinicians, and family members and issued a challenge to develop a national plan of care for children, adolescents, and young adults with brain injuries. Within one month, a national Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan (PABI Plan) was created. The PABI Plan outlines seven categories of care for treating brain injuries in children, adolescents, and young adults:

  • Prevention
  • Acute Phase
  • Mild TBI Assessment and Treatment
  • Reintegration and Long-term Care
  • Adult Transition
  • Rural/Telehealth
  • Virtual Center, which provides a family registry and a central location for information and materials about pediatric TBI 

The extent and scope of the PABI Plan are ambitious, but several benefits have emerged. PABI offers a comprehensive plan that represents best practices and is endorsed by key researchers and clinicians. The major issues and an aggressive plan to address each one are clearly outlined. As a part of the Successful Outcomes plan, each state has a designated lead center that acts as a model and collaborator in the state and communicates with national partners. States can support the plan because each has a stake in the plan's development, implementation, and benefits. Ideas for funding through federal and state grants are outlined in this document, which can serve to direct and justify future research initiatives. Finally, any organization or agency can use part of this plan to implement its own programs for this population.

Successful Treatment 

The four children and young adults with TBI introduced in the beginning of this article—Jessica, Kiesha, Matthew, and Marvin—were each referred to SLPs who helped them develop cognitive-communicative skills that support them in school and in the community.

Jessicareceives multiple therapies in school and has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that addresses her cognitive-communication challenges. Her SLP reports that she now uses an augmentative and alternative communication device to communicate essential feelings and needs.

Kieshawas referred to a neurologist who diagnosed mild seizure activity and prescribed medication. She receives social-pragmatic language intervention from her SLP, and qualifies for services on a 504 plan (for students who need accommodations, but not specialized instruction). She is considering attending a two-year college this fall. Supports to help her achieve success should be provided by the college's accessibility office and its speech and hearing center.

Matthewwas identified for a full assessment and was found to have cognitive-communication challenges based in problems with attention, memory, organization, and expressive language. His IEP includes placement in a regular-education classroom.

Marvinwas identified as having cognitive-communication problems with memory, organization, and planning. He is continuing his education at the university with classroom accommodations and supports from the speech and hearing center.

These youngsters received appropriate services, in part because evidence-based

information is now available, agencies now advocate for this population and provide well-designed educational materials, and more research is available for professionals who are helping them overcome the short- and long-term effects of TBI.  

About the Author

Roberta DePompei, CCC-SLP/A,  is a distinguished professor and director of the School of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Akron. She is a former co-chair of the Brain Injury Association of America's Task Force for Children and Adolescents. Her research interests include TBI and resultant cognitive-communication disorders. Contact her at 

cite as: DePompei, R. (2010, November 02). Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury : Where Do We Go From Here?. The ASHA Leader.



Babikian, T., & Asarnow, R. (2009). Neurocognitive outcomes and recovery after pediatric TBI: Meta-analysis of the literature. Neuropsychology, 23(3), 283–296.

Blosser, J. L., & DePompei, R. (2003). Pediatric traumatic brain injury: Proactive intervention. New York: Delmar.

Chapman, S. B. (2006). Neurocognitive stall: A paradox in long term recovery from pediatric brain injury. Brain Injury Professional, 3(4), 10–13.

Chapman, S. B., Gamino, J. F., Cook, L. G., Hanten, G., Li, X., & Levin, H. S. (2009). Impaired discourse gist and working memory in children after brain injury. Brain and Language, 97, 178–188.

Chapman, S. B., Nasits, J., Challas, J. D., & Billinger, A. P. (1999). Long-term recovery in pediatric head injury: Overcoming the hurdles. Advances in Speech Language Pathology, 191, 19–30.

DePompei, R., & Blosser, J. (2003). Communication: How communication changes over time. Wake Forest, NC: LA Publishing/Training.

Gamino, J. F., Chapman, S.B., & Cook, L. G. (2009). Strategic learning in youth with traumatic brain injury: Evidence for stall in higher-order cognition. Topics in Language Disorders, 24(3), 1–12.

Hawley, C., Ward, A. B., Magnay, A., & Mychalkiw, W. (2004). Return to school after brain injury. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 89, 136–142.

Turkstra, L. S., Williams, W. H., Tonks, J., & Frampton, I. (2008). Measuring social cognition in adolescents: Implications for students with TBI returning to school. NeuroRehabilitation, 23(6), 501–509.

Yeates, K. O., & Taylor, G. H. (2006). Behavior problems in school and their educational correlates among children with traumatic brain injury. Exceptionality, 14(3), 141–154.

Posted on BrainLine February 18, 2011.

Reprinted with permission from "Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury" by Roberta DePompei. The ASHA Leader, 13, November 2, 2010, pp. 16-20. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Comments (4)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

I fell 15 feet and cracked my skull when I was three. I lost consciousness for a few minutes. My mom says doctors told her I had suffered brain damage. They monitored my brain activity using EEG for six months. Then the doctors told my mother I was normal and did not need any more treatment. I am 53 now and I have always felt I understand far more than I can convey through speech. I am a writer, in part because it gives me the time/space to compose my thoughts. Speaking extemporaneously is rough for me/awkward. Also when i hear a number I forget it immediately...I have almost no auditory echo. Is there a way to test for evidence of brain damage from such an old injury? Thanks!

I am 46 years old and I was physically abused growing up in the 70s and 80s. I received at least 12 probably more concussions from my father and never went to the hospital or receive treatment for them. At this time in my life, I'm having extreme difficulty in everyday life and the last 5 years or so I have been trying to figure out what is going on and why I'm having such difficulties. Looking up the information on TBI I have found that I have or have had most of the symptoms of severe brain injuries.

My question now is what the heck do I do about it?

A lot of my coworkers and management have been expressing concern of my aggression and other social skills that are lacking. I've been placed on temporary medical leave without pay and really don't know what else I can do. It's becoming a major problem in my life even more so than in the past.What the heck can I do about it?

I was born w/ a brain Injury, then went on @ 17y/o having Brain Surgery to stop the seizures I had, that I even had during my Mother’s pregnancy w/ me.
I am currently an Officer of the Brain Injury Association, for the Lansing Michigan Chapter. I don’t know where you’re located, but finding a local BIA in your state can help you find resources & ppl/Organizations that will help you

I am a Speech & Language Therapist working in the UK. I have limited experience of children with ABI but currently have a child on my caseload. This article was very useful in guiding my assessment.