Characterized by inattentiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) rates have been rising all over the world. As a result, the number of ADHD meds being prescribed have increased. But more and more, researchers are finding that these drugs are doing very little to help ADHD sufferers academically.
Stimulant drugs used to treat ADHD, like Ritalin and Adderall, are often called “cognitive enhancers” because studies have shown that taking them helps improve concentration and even certain types of short term memory. The drugs were even given to World War II soldiers to help improve their ability to stay alert while scanning radars for enemy aircrafts. And today, about 2.7 million children take medication to treat their ADHD symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control said in their most recent survey from 2007.
Previous research has found that children with ADHD do better with things like episodic memory (memory for experiences) and concentration when taking stimulant drugs. A study conducted by Claire Advokat, a professor emerita in the psychology department at Louisiana State University found that children taking ADHD stimulants did better at remembering scenes from a story that the both heard and saw than those not taking the drugs. In fact, the children on medication performed just as well as the control children tested who did not have any ADHD symptoms.
Unfortunately, a June study that took a look at the medication usage and educational outcomes of nearly 4,000 Quebec students over the course of 11 years suggests that those results don’t carry over into the classroom. When comparing the grades of ADHD boys taking the drugs with ADHD boys not taking medication, the academic scores were actually worse for the boys that took medication. And girls that took the medication reported having more emotional problems than those with similar symptoms that did not take ADHD medication.
“The possibility that [medication] won’t help them [in school] needs to be acknowledged and needs to be closely monitored,” economics professor Janet Currie, an author on the study and director of the Center for Health & Wellbeing, a health policy institute at Princeton University told The Wall Street Journal.
Another major study, funded by the U.S. government and known as the MTA, found similar results regarding long-term medication results. They looked at 579 children with ADHD for a total of 14 months. All of the children were randomly assigned to either one of three treatment groups or a control group that was not treated. For the first year, the 8- and 9-year-old children who had received medication and a combination of treatment had seen greater improvement in symptoms than the other children. This even extended to academic improvements. But then, by year three, the benefits of the drugs seemed to dissipate. Then, during the eight year follow-up, researchers didn’t find any difference between children taking the medication and children not taking the meds, which suggested that there aren’t any long-term benefits of treatment with medication during childhood.
Results like these leave a lot of questions to be answered. Like, why is it that the medication seems to be helping with overall behavior and attention, but grades aren’t showing any improvement? One theory is that the effects of the medication may improve the child’s ability to sit still and not interrupt during class, but it doesn’t help improve other factors important to success at school, like homework completion, family encouragement and test-taking. Another is theory, based on studies that have shown that children taking ADHD medication do better on an exam than those without ADHD if they study early, but don’t do any better if they study at the last minute, indicates that maybe children aren’t studying along the way for upcoming tests.
Additionally, some believe that the medication’s ability to improve concentration and attention may actually backfire when it comes to things like studying, because it may help with focus, but might not help with knowing what to focus on. Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who sits on the American Academy of Neurology committee, who is drafting new treatment guidelines, recalls a student saying just that. She said that, if the student kept her head buried in her studies, she’d get very engrossed in what she needed to learn. But if a friend stopped by, she would become just as engrossed in talking with her friend.
Add all these theories together, and it seems that it may not be that the medication won’t work; it may just be that medication alone isn’t enough to improve academic performance. Other skills, like organization and prioritizing, may need to be incorporated into treatment as well. It’s also possible that, if parents pair helpful these skill training programs with some changes, like better support, fewer distractions during study time and more accountability for things like homework and study time, children with ADHD may start seeing that improvement over time.
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