ADHD News & Research

New Study: ADHD Medications Don’t Improve Homework Speed, Results

A small study suggests that stimulant medications used to treat ADHD do not always help children with ADHD complete their homework more quickly or more accurately. What does help? Behavioral therapy.

October 3, 2016

The frustration and anguish of the nightly homework battle is an almost universally shared emotion among parents and students — particularly those with ADHD. After a tough day at school, children with ADHD understandably struggle to focus on their home assignments. As a result, many families use long-acting stimulants designed to work for up to 12 hours — from 8 a.m. clear through to bedtime. But now a small study is suggesting that long-acting ADHD medications may not be as helpful for homework as is behavioral therapy. In fact, the study found that medication had absolutely no effect on a student’s homework completion rate or accuracy, whereas behavioral therapy improved both.

The study, published September 12 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, randomly assigned 75 children enrolled in an 8-week summer school program to receive behavioral therapy, a placebo, or a long-acting stimulant medication, taken in the morning before the school day started at 8 a.m. The children, aged 5 to 12, had all been formally diagnosed with ADHD. Those who were assigned to medication worked with a doctor for two weeks before performance assessments began to ensure they were prescribed an effective dose for their symptoms. The behavior-therapy group received six 2-hour group sessions, followed by two half-hour individual sessions. The study lasted four weeks.

The group taking the stimulant medication showed no improvement over the group taking a placebo, the researchers said — in fact, the majority of students from both groups received F averages on their homework assignments. The group that received behavioral therapy, on the other hand, completed about 10 to 13 percent more homework problems each night than did the medication group, and received an accuracy rate 8 percent higher than the other students in the study — resulting in about a C average.

“Behavioral interventions are more effective than long-acting stimulant medications in improving homework performance among children with ADHD, and stimulant medication did not add to the effectiveness of the behavioral intervention,” lead study author Brittany Merrill concluded in an email to Reuters Health. “Long-acting stimulant medications haven’t been shown to help with homework performance, despite companies advertising their utility for homework time.”

The researchers conceded limitations to the study — namely the small sample size, as well as the challenge of replicating each student’s unique homework assignments. It was also difficult to tell if the stimulant medication was still working for each child, since long-acting stimulants can wear off faster in some patients than in others. Dr. Tumaini Rucker Coker, a pediatrics researcher from UCLA who wasn’t involved in the study, hypothesized that the study might not have allowed for enough medication for the children to be “covered” while they were doing homework.

“[The study] doesn’t suggest that the child does not need the medication,” she said in an interview with Reuters. “It may suggest, however, that by evening hours, when the effect of the medication has dissipated, behavioral interventions will be even more important to help the child get through evening homework time.”