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ADHD Medication Treatment Associated with Higher Academic Performance in Elementary School

Science Update

doctor with young boy

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who take medication to treat the condition tend to do better in math and reading compared to their peers who also have ADHD but do not take medication, according to data from a national survey. The NIMH-funded study was published in the May 2009 issue of Pediatrics.

Background

ADHD, which is characterized by poor concentration, distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsivity and other symptoms, can adversely affect a child's academic performance. Compared to their peers without the disorder, children with ADHD tend to have lower grades, lower math and reading scores, and are more likely to repeat a year or drop out of school.

Richard Scheffler, Ph.D., of the University of California Berkeley, and colleagues analyzed a sample of 594 children diagnosed with ADHD who were part of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999, a U.S. Department of Education survey. The children were surveyed for various issues five times between kindergarten and fifth grade. The researchers focused on the children's math and reading scores to determine if medication use for ADHD was associated with academic achievement during elementary school.

Results of the Study

The study found that students with ADHD who took medication had math scores that were on average 2.9 points higher and reading scores on average 5.4 points higher than their unmedicated peers with ADHD. This equated to gains that were equivalent to the progress typically made in one-fifth of a school year in math, and one-third of a school year in reading. Improvements in reading, however, were seen only in students who had been taking medication for at least two rounds of the survey. The authors suggest that the different findings between math and reading scores may point to underlying differences in the process of learning.

Significance

The findings echo previous studies that have found that use of ADHD medication can improve children's attention and memory skills, which can help them do better in school. In addition, the improvement is notable because early academic success often predicts later school progress, said the researchers. However, they caution that the gains are not enough to eliminate the achievement gap typically seen between children with ADHD and those without the disorder.

What's Next

The findings support the need for long-term studies designed to better understand the relationship between medication use and academic achievement in children with ADHD. The authors also conclude by noting that more research is needed on combining medication with behavioral interventions to improve the school performance of children with ADHD.

Reference

Scheffler RM, Brown TT, Fulton BD, Hinshaw SP, Levine P, Stone S. Positive association between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder medication use and academic achievement during elementary school. Pediatrics. 2009 May. 123(5): 1273-1279.