Study: Stimulant Medications for Kids with ADHD Do Not Improve Learning
Stimulant medications do not improve overall learning for children with ADHD, but they do help boost productivity, behavior, and test scores, according to a new controlled study.
June 9, 2022
Stimulant medication does not help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) learn academic lessons more thoroughly or more quickly, according to new research that dispels long-held beliefs about treatment.
“Although it has been believed for decades that medication effects on academic seatwork, productivity, and classroom behavior would translate into improved learning of new academic material, we found no such translation,” researchers reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.1, 2
A controlled study evaluating the impact of stimulant medication on learning was conducted by scientists at the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University (FIU) in a summer classroom setting. Participants included 173 children with ADHD between the ages of 7 and 12 who attended the center’s eight-week summer camp program (77% were male, 23% were female; 86% were Hispanic, and 10% were Black). Children completed two consecutive phases of daily, 25-minute, grade-level instruction in vocabulary, science, and social studies.
Each child randomly received extended-release methylphenidate (Concerta) during either the first or second instructional phase and a placebo during the other. Medication dosages ranged from 18 mg (80%) to 27 mg (16%) to 36 mg (4%).
Findings showed that participants learned the same amount of science, social studies, and vocabulary content whether they took the medication or the placebo.
However, participants who took the stimulant improved their productivity and behavior. The medicated children completed 37% more math problems per minute and committed 53% fewer classroom rule violations per hour. These findings are consistent with previous studies. 2
In addition, researchers noted that medication taken on a test day helped improve test scores slightly, but not enough to boost most children’s grades (Children who took stimulants increased, on average, 1.7 points out of 100 on science and social studies tests). (footnote 2) “This finding has relevance for parents deciding whether to medicate their child for occasions such as a psychoeducational evaluation or high-stakes academic testing—while the effect size was small, findings suggest being medicated would improve scores,” researchers said.
According to researchers, this is the first study that “provides controlled, experimental, preliminary evidence failing to support the expectation that medication will improve academic achievement in children with ADHD.”2
The study’s results, researchers said, will inform parents, teachers, and school administrators about the specific academic outcomes that stimulant medication may help (e.g., classroom behavior) and likely will not help (e.g., academic achievement).
Approximately 10% of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with ADHD. Of those who pursue treatment with medication, more than 90% are prescribed a stimulant as the primary form of treatment in school settings because most doctors believe that stimulants will result in better academic achievement.3
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1 Fiks, A. G., Mayne, S., Debartolo, E., Power, T. J., & Guevara, J. P. (2013). Parental preferences and goals regarding ADHD treatment. Pediatrics, 132(4), 692–702. 10.1542/peds.2013-0152
2 Pelham WE, Altszuler AR, Merrill BM, Raiker JS, Macphee FL, Ramos M, Gnagy EM, Greiner AR, Coles EK, Connor CM, Lonigan CJ, Burger L, Morrow AS, Zhao X, Swanson JM, Waxmonsky JG, Pelham, WE. (2022) The effect of stimulant medication on the learning of academic curricula in children with ADHD: A randomized crossover study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 90(5), 367-380. 10.1037/ccp0000725
3Danielson, M. L., Bitsko, R. H., Ghandour, R. M., Holbrook, J. R., Kogan, M. D., & Blumberg, S. J. (2022). Prevalence of parent-reported ADHD diagnosis and associated treatment among U.S. children and adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 47(2), 199–212. 10.1080/15374416.2017.1417860