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Effective workplace communication with employees with acquired brain injury


Talking about learning

Assisting employees with ABI to learn new skills, routines or behaviours requires particular communication skills.

All employees need to know that they are continually learning the skills of being a worker. Everyone has to learn these skills and go on learning to develop new skills and learn new tasks. You need to assist supported employees to understand their role as learners and why it is important to learn and keep learning work skills.

  1. Work shows other people we are independent adults.
  2. Going to work shows other people that we are productive members of the community.
  3. Work is a chance to learn and develop new skills.
  4. Through our work, we set ourselves goals for getting better at things.
  5. When we see ourselves getting better at things, we feel better about ourselves.
  6. When we work well, we contribute to our organisation and that means everyone gains.

People learn best when they take an active part in the learning process. To assist a person with ABI to learn you must get them engaged right from the start. Like any learners, they need to know:

Today you are going to learn how to put the labels on the jars of dip.

Yesterday, you checked the labels before the dips were packed, didn't you? And you noticed that some jars had the label on the wrong way up. Well, they should have been fixed up here in this section. That's part of our job.

Today we'll concentrate on two things. First, we'll make sure the jars come off the line the right way up. Second, we'll put the label on so that it's straight and fixed firmly to the jar.

Stay with me and watch everything I do. Then I'll go over anything you want me to slowly and you can ask questions. After that, you can have a go.

I'll watch you and tell you how you're going. Does that sound OK to you?

An employee with ABI faces particular challenges as a learner. Many of these problems relate to memory impairment (see the section on memory in the introduction to this manual). ABI can mean a learner may:

All these, and many other types of learning difficulties may follow a brain injury. To support employees with ABI, you must get to know as much as possible about the way their condition impacts on how they learn at work. Observe them, communicate with them and with others who know them well, and, above all, keep on trying to find out more and new ways to help them learn in the workplace.


Carmen has worked at Merrinvale for nearly ten years. For the past two years she has performed the simplest of the Space Cake tasks – stacking small cardboard containers in groups of six. Since a drug overdose at the age of 19, Carmen's attention span is very limited and she has poor memory and learning capacity. Her planning and problem solving abilities are, consequently, very limited.

Carmen has great difficulty discriminating between things. She can take up to an hour to decide which box to pack next, or which side of the bench to stack the containers on. She cannot make even the simplest judgements about quality and quantity. Her supervisor has to set very simple routines for her and prompt her to complete each step.

From Nathan's diary

I have had a really hard time this week with Carmen. She's been taught to count to six and which way up to stack the boxes and you think she's got it but next thing you'll find she has just sat there for an hour and nothing's been done. She's always losing track of her counting too. Yesterday, I stood beside her and listened. She said, 'One, … two …, one …', over and over again.

She also gets terribly upset if there's any change – even the smallest thing like a different colour on the label can set her off. Last week the boxes for the pastry cases had a special Christmas label on them. Same boxes, same label, just a tiny green bell on the picture. Carmen got very confused and upset about this. This week Lallie has been away on leave and that seems to be upsetting her too.


  1. Increase the employee's ability to fix and maintain attention. A lot of people with ABI become tired very quickly in a learning situation. They may also tend to get lost before they complete a task.
  1. Reduce the memory demands on the employee with ABI.

This is just like the way you ticked off the houses when you did your paper round.

  1. Provide memory cues.
  1. Help people learn from their mistakes. It might be quicker to tell someone if they have made a mistake but it is not helping them get the right outcome the next time. You can build in cues and structure your communication in tasks to enable someone to learn from mistakes or recognise themselves if they have made errors.

Which carton will hold 20 pastry cases?

This one (pointing to a carton for ten pastry cases).

What number did we put on that sized carton?

Number 1.

Does that mean it holds 20 pastry cases?

…Umm…does it mean it holds ten?

That's right. It holds ten. Is 20 more than ten?

…Yes. If 20 is more than ten, which carton will fit 20 pastry cases into it?

…Oh yeah. This one…number 2.

That's right. Number 2 holds twenty cases.

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