Recent studies of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) finds little change in academic performance after starting pharmaceutical stimulant treatments.
One of the main reasons parents of children with ADHD turn to stimulant based treatments is that they want to help their children perform better in school – they don’t want performance to suffer as a direct result of their symptoms. However, new studies are indicating that a problem exists in this strategy; that is, little evidence suggests that ADHD drugs actually are able to improve academic performance.
Stimulants that doctor’s use to treat ADHD such as Adderall, Concerta, Daytrana among others have been called ‘cognitive enhancers’ by some as they have previously been shown to improve memory in the short term as well as improve concentration and alertness levels.
Drugs similar to these were used by soldiers in World War II to help them stay focused while doing repetitive or boring jobs such as scanning radar for aircraft of ships.
Howbeit, more studies are being to show that in the long run, grade-point averages (GPA) and achievement scores are no different for children with ADHD who take these stimulants versus those who do not. It is also worth noting that these studies take into account accommodations schools take when teaching and testing people with ADHD.
A study this June conduct by Janet Currie, Mark Stabile, and Lauren E. Jones analyzed the medication usage and educational outcomes over an average of 11 years for over 4,000 students in Quebec. The authors found that boys who took stimulant drugs actually performed worse academically than those who exhibited similar symptoms but refrained from using the ‘cognitive enhancers’.
The authors also reported that girls who took the pharmaceutical treatments reported more emotional problems than girls who exhibited similar symptoms but refrained from the drug use.
Janet Currie, who is the director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University, says:
The possibility that the medication won’t help them in school needs to be acknowledged and monitored more closely. Kids may not get the right dose to see sustained benefits, or they may stop taking the medication because side effects or other drawbacks may outweigh the benefits.
While these findings are extremely interesting, they do lead ADHD research into a bit of a paradox: if ADHD drugs have been shown to increase attention and focus, why would grades not improve as a result?
Understanding this paradox is very important to the scientific community, who believe that finding an answer may lead to an improved ability to treat ADHD.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, ADHD diagnoses have increased 50% in the last decade alone, with 11% of children, or 6.4 million, exhibiting symptoms consistent with an ADHD diagnosis in their lifetime.
What makes this study so surprising is that despite the proven ability to increase focus, these benefits seem to have a hard time translating into improved academic performance in the classroom.
In a major study known as the MTA, the long term effects of ADHD treatment were analyzed in 579 children. Each child, which was clinically diagnosed with the condition, was randomly placed into one of three different treatment types or a control group for a total of 14 months.
The short term effects certainly indicated a benefit for children who received medication, with the greatest improvement in ADHD symptoms and even some increased educational attainment as well (within the first year).
By the third year though, any benefit received by the drug group had completely disappeared. Recently, at an 8-year follow up, no differences between any of the groups could be determined in terms of ADHD symptoms or academic performance, which lead the authors to suggest that no long-term benefits exist from taking the medication during childhood.
The authors also offered an interpretation of the findings that stimulants improve classroom behaviors such as the frequency of interruptions and sitting still, but that factors such as homework completion or self-study are not positively affected.
Other studies have indicated that children who take stimulant treatments and study for an exam can increase their results, but that if they take the drugs and study last minute no differences were made.
Combining these studies together, their coupled findings indicate that medication by itself cannot improve a student’s grade. While focus can certainly be improved by the medication, it does not help the individual determine what to focus on. As such, medication needs to be coupled with skills such as learning to organize, prioritize, and stay on task.
Currie, J., Stabile, M., & Jones, L. E. (2013). Do Stimulant Medications Improve Educational and Behavioral Outcomes for Children with ADHD? (No. w19105). National Bureau of Economic Research.