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Norwin School District team aids students with concussions

| Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

Norwin School District administrators hope a new policy will make it easier for students with concussions to return to the classroom.

The policy allows teachers and administrators to work together to modify curriculum when necessary to accommodate concussed students.

"When a student comes in with a (prescription) from their doctor or concussion clinic, our teachers, nurses and counselors will work together to determine how to assist the child with academics and attendance," said Tracy McNelly, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

"We want to make sure everybody is working and communicating effectively to provide those students with the best education."

Norwin offers modified academic plans for students with concussions on a case-by-case basis, but the new policy would provide a standardized procedure for administrators and teachers, McNelly said.

Emergency rooms across the country treated about 173,285 sports and recreation-related concussions for children ages 19 and younger between 2001 and 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

UPMC treats 10,000 concussion patients a year, or about 250 a week, and 70 percent to 80 percent are in high school or college, spokeswoman Susan Manko said.

The medical community doesn't have a firm explanation for why concussions have become common, but most attribute it to higher rates of children playing sports and a better understanding of concussions and symptoms, according to Jonathan French, a neuropsychology fellow at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

"We're better able to diagnose these types of injuries and better recognize their symptoms and effects," French said. "We also realize the negative effects, and the public is more aware, so it's treated more now than ever before."

Cause and affect

Concussions are commonly associated with bicycling, football, basketball, and soccer, and on playground equipment, according to the CDC.

About a dozen students in Norwin School District currently have concussions, McNelly said.

None of the concussions happened during school-sponsored activities, she said.

"The number of cases has risen," McNelly said. "We see more in the high school, because the students are involved in more activities and athletics inside and outside of school, but we do have some cases in all of our schools."

When a concussed student returns to the classroom, typically, teachers and administrators attempt to provide them a reduced amount of in-class work and homework, and provide more resources, such as extra books, to their parents, McNelly said.

In cases of severe concussions, administrators will adjust scheduling, so concussed students can report to school later, or modify the amount of time spent in class, until symptoms subside, she said.

Teachers also will try to stay in more frequent contact with concussed students' parents to help monitor their progress, she said.

"We have students who have very difficult classes and, when concussed, it's difficult to remain focused and work," McNelly said. "We have an obligation to make sure that we're not slowing the healing process, but at the same time, we have to provide an education and make sure they don't fall too far behind."

It's important to take time to address the individual needs of every student coming back to school after being concussed, French said.

"Not every child has the same symptoms or recovery," French said. "It can be very difficult to stay focused and use the memory, interact or learn, as they normally would."

Concussions cause brain cells to work inefficiently and need rest to recover properly. Attempting to force concussed brain cells to work at a normal rate, or to take on demanding tasks, such as schoolwork, slows the healing process, French said.

After a concussion, it's common for patients to seem fatigued and sluggish, and have a hard time focusing and headaches. Returning to the classroom could exacerbate these symptoms, French said.

"School-based tasks are demanding, and often require a lot of work a concussed brain would not be able to handle," he said. "So concussed students usually struggle when returning to the classroom.

"It's important to not push through the symptoms."

Rob Rossi of the Tribune-Review News Service contributed to this story.

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