U of O
The Center on Brain Injury
Research & Training

Eligibility for Special Education Services


Like other students with disabilities, students with TBI need to be accurately identified so they can be appropriately served by educators who are knowledgeable about the challenges they experience and who can implement effective instructional and behavioral strategies. Correct identification not only benefits the student in the classroom, but opens the door to other services the student might not have access to under a different eligibility category.teacher and student

To determine eligibility for special education services, the school team must assess the student. Often students with TBI are misidentified and determined eligible for special education services under other eligibility categories. It is critical that students be accurately assessed and identified for special education services under the category of TBI so they receive services specifically tailored to their individual learning needs.

The federal definition of TBI:
“An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.”  
A few states have adopted different versions (for example, North Carolina which can include brain injuries induced by birth trauma) but most states use the federal definition. It is important to know your state’s definition. The National Association of State Head Injury Administrators has compiled this list with each state’s definition. Click here to read yours.  

The referral process
Parents, teachers, therapists, medical personnel, or others can begin the process of evaluating a student’s educational needs by making a referral to the school’s support services team or administrator. IDEA contains specific eligibility criteria for all special education categories, including TBI.

IDEA rules for evaluation

In most states, a special education evaluation for TBI must include the following: (Be sure to check the specific requirements for your state.)

  1. A medical or health assessment statement indicating that an event may have resulted in a TBI.
  2. A comprehensive psychological assessment, using a battery of instruments to identify deficits associated with TBI, administered by a licensed school psychologist or the state Board of Psychological Examiners or others who are trained and experienced in administering and interpreting tests in the battery.
  3. Other assessments, as needed, such as motor, communication, and psychosocial assessments
    • Other information related to the child’s suspected disability, including pre-injury performance and a current measure of adaptive ability.
    • Observation in the classroom and at least 1 other setting.
    • Other additional assessments needed to determine the effect of the suspected disability on the child’s educational performance for his/her age group.
    • Other assessments needed to identify the child’s educational needs.

The following conditions must be met

  1. Must have an acquired brain injury caused by external physical force
  2. Condition is permanent or expected to last for more than 60 calendar days
  3. Injury results in impairment in 1 or more areas:
    • Communication
    • Behavior
    • Cognition, memory, attention, abstract thinking, judgment, problem-solving, reasoning, and/or information processing
    • Sensory, perceptual, motor, and/or physical abilities

The evaluation must determine:

  1. The child’s disability has an adverse effect on the child’s educational performance
  2. The child needs special education services as a result of the disability

The testing environment matters.

Accommodating student challenges
Prior to assessment, examiners should be familiar with strategies to address potential problems confronting many students with TBI. These include cognitive and physical fatigue, attention deficits, memory problems, delayed processing and response time, low motivation or apathy, and impulse control deficits. For example, a test requiring extended focus and engagement could be broken into subtests administered at separate times to minimize cognitive fatigue. For tests that are untimed, examiners should allow the student sufficient time to respond to questions. An examiner who is aware of the challenges often associated with TBI can help build rapport with the student so that the testing provides a valid sample of performance.

The physical environment
Because symptoms of TBI can interfere with testing, it is important to test in an environment that limits distractions such as noise, excessive visual stimuli, and movement. A quiet setting with few distractions will help get the best test results possible.

Use multiple types of assessment to get a comprehensive evaluation of the student.
Because of the diversity within the population of students with TBI, there is no one TBI assessment; each assessment must be tailored to the student’s unique and changing needs.

Commonly used assessments

See the Assessment Strategies/Ongoing Monitoring page for a list of commonly used assessments.