A New Theory for Rising ADHD Diagnoses

As academic demands for kids have increased, so too have ADHD diagnoses.
ADHD News Feed | posted by Devon Frye

Posted June 21, 2016

We’ve all heard the refrain, “Back in my day, ADHD didn’t exist!” It’s incorrect, of course, but what is true is that ADHD diagnoses have been on the rise for the past few decades. In fact, ADHD is almost twice as common now as it was 40 years ago. There are a multitude of theories for the surge — expanded awareness, improved diagnostic processes, and accelerated advertising by pharmaceutical companies — but now, researchers think they’ve zeroed in on one more: increased academic demands for students across the U.S.

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that today’s students have more social, academic, and extracurricular commitments than their predecessors did, but there was little hard data to back it up. Now, a study published April 1 in JAMA Pediatrics looked specifically at shifting academic demands — both from parents and from teachers — to determine what’s expected of a student today compared to one growing up in the 1970s.

The results were significant:

> From 1981 to 1997, the average weekly homework for first-through-third graders more than doubled, and parents spent 30 percent more time teaching their preschool-aged children letters and numbers.
> In 1998, only 30 percent of teachers thought it was necessary to teach a child to read in kindergarten; by 2010, that figure had shot up to over 80 percent.
> Preschool-age children who were enrolled in full-day academic programs ballooned from 17 percent in 1970 to nearly 60 percent by the 2000s. [br]] > At the same time, ADHD diagnoses were steadily rising. Between 2003 and 2011 alone, the percent of students between the ages of four and 17 who had been diagnosed with ADHD jumped from 7.8 to more than 11.

Jeffrey Brosco, the lead researcher on the study, says he wasn’t surprised by the connection. “From time spent studying to enrollment rates in pre-primary programs, everything had increased,” he said. “And not surprisingly, in the past 40 years we also saw ADHD diagnoses double.”

Brosco cautions that the results don’t prove a causal effect at this point, but he points to similar research — like a recent study that showed that children who started school early were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their older classmates — that adds weight to the theory that higher academic standards may be partially to blame for the spike in ADHD.

“Although it is a neurobiological condition with genetic causes, ADHD is defined by behaviors that are age dependent, related to the demands of the environment, and occur on a spectrum of typical behavior of children,” he wrote. In other words, a child with ADHD who may have passed under the radar in the 70s may stand out in today’s high-pressure academic environment.

Higher standards aren’t necessarily better, says Brosco, especially for children with ADHD, who are often further victimized by losing the art or athletic programs in which they tend to thrive.

“We feel that the academic demands being put on young children are negatively affecting a portion of them,” he said. “In the United States, we’ve decided that increasing academic demands on young children is a good thing, [but] what we haven’t considered are the potential negative effects.”

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