New research finds that the purported ability of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs to improve academic performance in children has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the study authors say the drugs may be having a negative effect on the ability of children to pay attention in a formal academic setting.
In the September 2014 edition of the Journal of Health Economics, researchers from Princeton, Cornell and the University of Toronto published the findings of a study they performed using information collected from the public school system in Quebec. Following 1997 rules changes that expanded insurance coverage for ADHD medications, the use of Ritalin and Adderall in Quebec exploded. Within 10 years, 44 percent of the ADHD drugs being consumed in Canada were being taken by kids living in this province. Children and teens diagnosed with ADHD are frequently given prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs can increase focus, induce serenity and improve memory, and the effects they have on kids’ outward behavior is often sudden and dramatic.
Long Term Research On ADHD Drugs
Charting the academic performance of children and adolescents given these drugs as a consequence of an ADHD diagnosis, the joint U.S.-Canadian research team did not find any evidence to support the long-term effectiveness of these medications. In fact, their analysis of the progress of kids on ADHD drugs showed these children actually performed slightly worse in the classroom than their non-drug consuming peers. It is important to note that these scientists were interested in exploring long-term outcomes, and they reached their conclusions after collecting and examining data obtained over about 11 years.
In the summary of their Journal of Health Economics article, the authors said their results “suggest that expanding medication in a community setting had little positive benefit and may have had harmful effects given the average way these drugs were used in the community.”
There is a degree of vagueness to the pronouncement, as the researchers seem to be suggesting that ADHD drugs might have benefits if prescribed—and used—with more restraint. But beyond a brief initial honeymoon period, ADHD drugs appear to do nothing to improve academic performance; and other evidence suggests they don’t do that much to improve focus, memory or self-discipline, either.
That other evidence was provided by another long-term study called the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD, or the MTA for short. This government-funded study examined the behavioral and academic progress of almost 600 children from ages 8 to 16, some of whom were given drugs for ADHD and some of whom were not, even though they had all exhibited symptoms of the disorder. While those who took the drugs showed improvement in classroom demeanor in the first year, by year three these effects were no longer in evidence.
What Every Parent And Educator Should Know About ADHD Drugs
The use of powerful chemical substances like Ritalin and Adderall to control the behavior of children is highly controversial. Pharmaceutical medications are potent, often disruptive to normal biological functioning and capable of causing a broad range of troubling side effects. No one really knows how impactful—for good or for ill—these formidable substances might be in young bodies and brains still in the formative stages, and even advocates for these medicines fear they are being prescribed indiscriminately.
Anecdotal evidence and some studies do suggest ADHD drugs have some capacity to help some young people increase their concentration in academic settings. But the most recent evidence strongly suggests those benefits are temporary and will wear off as a boy or girl develops a tolerance for Ritalin or Adderall. Ultimately, the final decision about using these drugs must be made by parents, and it is vitally important that moms and dads know the full truth about what research results reveal.
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