How Do I Manage Medication Side Effects?

Is the Common Core Stretching Our Kids’ Focus Past Its Natural Limits?

New research looks at how common core school curriculums might be impacting ADHD students, and how they take their medication. Here’s what you need to know.

Teacher To-Do List: Stacked Textbooks
Teacher To-Do List: Stacked Textbooks

No Child Left Behind led to changes in the school curriculum that increased focus on math and reading, traditionally difficult common core subjects for students with ADHD and cut out courses like history, art, and even gym. New research by specialists at Yale, New York University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is raising questions about the impact of ramped-up testing and stricter academic standards on medication use for attention deficit.

The study, published in the American Sociological Review, looks at the stimulant prescriptions filled during the 2007-8 school year, and cross-references the data with ratings from states that have adopted stricter academic content and testing standards like those found in the Common Core. It finds that middle and high school kids are 30% more likely to take a stimulant to treat ADHD during the school year than they are in the summer. Additionally, the data showed that children who live in states with the strictest standardized tests, most stringent school standards, and who come from more affluent families were the most likely to only use ADHD meds while school was in session only. Their peers from lower-income families were more likely to take medication all year round.

The tricky part is determining the reason for the difference. Researchers suspect a combination of factors related to socioeconomic background and the age of students studied. First, scientists note that well-off families tend to fill prescriptions only when the medication seems necessary, while lower-income families tend to follow doctors’ instructions to take the medications year round. This, combined with the age of children studied, could account for the difference of when medication is taken. Middle and high schoolers are more likely to need medication to focus on schoolwork, not to calm generalized hyperactivity through the entire year.

Perhaps explaining the higher frequency of use among higher-income families, other studies show that children from low-income families are diagnosed with ADHD at a higher rate, but their medication use is lower overall than that of their high-income peers. This is more likely due to financial constraints and prescription costs, rather than an attempt by affluent families to secure a testing advantage with medication. Alternatively, it could point to greater academic pressures to get into elite colleges in wealthy families.

So what is the link between curriculum and medication use? The data is inconclusive. It does not show that harder tests are leading to more stimulant use. Rather, experts suspect that the demand for increased attention without a break for physical activity is straining the attention of children throughout the school day.