Key points:

  • Allow student to rest when symptoms flair
  • Adjust brightness, font size, color of screens
  • Use larger screens before adding back smaller ones

Mental fatigue, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity — all together, the effects of a concussion can make the whole process of looking at a computer screen taxing on the brain, said Karen McAvoy, the director of the Center for Concussion at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.

“And anything that’s taxing to the brain flairs symptoms,” she said.

However, when a student returns to school after a concussion, restricting the student from using technology isn’t always feasible or in the student’s best interest, McAvoy said.

It’s not realistic to say “no computers, no screen time, or no reading,” she said, and it makes catching up even harder for the student.

While using technology may provoke symptoms for some students, it’s OK in small amounts during recovery, McAvoy said.

“We tell kids, the one black-and-white issue with a concussion is that you can’t go back to physical activity for fear of hitting your head again, but everything you do with electronics at home and at school are not black-and-white issues, those are shades of gray,” she said.

Having a concussion is like an “energy crisis” that educators can help a student manage by temporarily reducing workloads and allowing the student frequent breaks, McAvoy said.

It’s important to note that brain injuries and concussion symptoms are very individualized, said Bridgette Nicholson, occupational therapist and assistive technology consultant with Custom Solutions in Chicago. As such, what works for one student with a concussion may not work for another, she said.

In some instances, though, making adjustments to technology can reduce the likelihood that a computer screen or other device will trigger a student’s symptoms. Consider these suggestions:

  • Avoid older monitors, raise refresh rates. LCD monitors are less straining on the eyes than older-style monitors such as cathode ray tube displays, Nicholson said. If a student must work on a CRT-style monitor, reduce the time spent on the monitor and increase the refresh rate as high as it will go, she said. The refresh rate controls how often the computer re-draws an image. “You might think it’s an imperceptible flash or flicker, but it’s perceptible to the eye. Even students with seizure disorders can actually experience more seizures just by looking at a monitor because the refresh rate is too low,” Nicholson said.
  • Dim brightness, lower resolution. A bright screen can trigger a student’s sensitivity to light, McAvoy said. Dim the brightness, lower the resolution, and enlarge images on the screen. Many devices have a “dark theme,” which darkens the foreground and background, Nicholson said.
  • Change layout of documents. Concussions can affect eye movement and eye-tracking, McAvoy said. Increasing font size makes it easier for a student to read across the screen without straining his eyes. Programs such as Readability automatically change the way text appears on a screen to reduce eye strain, Nicholson said. Centering text, increasing margin sizes, and double-spacing sentences can also reduce eye-strain, she said.
  • Gradually add back smaller screens. A small screen with a high rate of movement can be a bad combination for many students with concussions, McAvoy said. Have the student use a larger screen such as a desktop monitor first, and gradually add back use of smaller devices such as tablets or smartphones as she recovers, McAvoy said.
  • Change the color of the screen. “It’s case by case, but some kids just find that a color overlay takes away some of that strain on their eyes,” McAvoy said. Colored, safety glasses may also help, she said. “If you’re going to print out papers for a kid with a concussion, maybe print it out on a light yellow instead of a stark, white paper,” she added. ScreenRuler by Claro, designed to benefit students with learning disabilities, may also reduce visual strain for students with concussions because it covers the screen with a color tint, Nicholson said.
  • Turn to audio resources. Many e-books now come with a read-aloud function, Nicholson said. “A student can have the book read aloud to her with headphones so she doesn’t have to look at the screen.” Overdrive is a free audiobook program available at many libraries, she said. The student may also benefit from assistive technologies such as text-to-speech software, Nicholson said. Alternatively, if writing, typing, or looking at a computer screen provokes symptoms, have the student speak her answers into a digital or tape recorder for the teacher, Nicholson suggested.
  • Avoid quick head movement from looking down at paper, up at screen. Print out the teacher’s notes so that a student doesn’t need to move his head to look up and down, McAvoy said. On desktop computers, the top of the monitor should be level with the student’s eyes, Nicholson said.
  • Prioritize screen time for academic purposes. If technology use provokes a student’s symptoms, talk to the student about temporarily scaling down other uses of technology such as social media, texting, and playing video games during recovery, McAvoy said.
  • Avoid restrictive settings. With minor adjustments and a reduced workload, most students will fully recover in 3-4 weeks, McAvoy said. “A student can be at school, listen to incredible discussion and lecture, but they’re not having to do the same amount of work as others” she said. “That’s something that can help a kid, who isn’t feeling 100 percent because of a concussion, stay engaged with their life and be better in a few weeks — versus being at home, or having homebound or online instruction and being isolated.”

See also:

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504, education technology, and Common Core issues related to special education for LRP Publications.
May 18, 2016

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