Children with ADHD need more than medication to succeed in school, study finds

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A new study from the Florida International University Center for Children and Families has concluded that ADHD medications do not help children learn more in school and that therapy and educational support are also needed for children to succeed in school. school.

Every year, tens of millions of children and teens with attention deficit problems in the United States take medication to try to do better in school, but a groundbreaking new study released Monday has concluded that drugs, usually stimulants with side effects, do not stimulate successful studies.

The research, led by experts at Florida International University, contradicts a long-held belief among doctors, teachers, parents and patients that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do better in class when taking prescription drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and other amphetamines and stimulants.

“This is a very surprising finding,” said William Pelham Jr., lead author of the study and director of the FIU Center for Children and Families, which aims to improve the mental health of children and their families.

“Medication helps a child do better in school, and doctors and teachers believe that will translate into better results, so they won’t fall behind and fail. What this study shows is that the drug has no effect on how much children learn in the classroom,” added Pelham, 74, a clinical psychologist who has worked in this area of ​​research since the 1980s and joined the CRF to open the center in 2010.

In other words, while the pills may help a student sit longer or listen to instructions more closely, they don’t actually help them get better grades. In order to improve their studies, Pelham said, students must be treated with behavioral therapy and other psychological methods.

The groundbreaking 14-page paper, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, concluded a roughly ten-year effort by Pelham and about 15 other researchers.

1 in 10 American children diagnosed with ADHD

Symptoms of ADHD, one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders childhood disorders, include inattention and hyperactivity. Nearly 10% — or about 6.1 million — of children ages 2 to 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to a 2016 national survey of parents. And more than 90% of them are prescribed stimulants as their primary form of treatment in school.

According to studies, students with ADHD struggle in school, get lower grades, lower test scores, and are more likely to keep a grade or drop out before graduation.

Doctors treat the vast majority of cases with stimulant drugs, which increase activity in parts of the brain that allow people to control their impulses, Pelham said.

Medicines have side effects and can affect children differently. Side effects include loss of appetite, sleep problems, low mood and tics. The Food and Drug Administration has also studied whether the drugs may increase the risk of heart and psychiatric problems.

Pelham said the study indicates that what helps the student the most is reinforcing behavior through positive messaging and building an infrastructure that gives feedback, such as a daily newsletter, as well as providing accommodations such as more time to take tests.

“Over the past 30 to 40 years, it has become clear that ADHD children have learning problems…and this has happened despite the fact that the percentage of ADHD children taking medication has risen. arrow,” Pelham said. “Almost all children with ADHD receive medication. Unfortunately, most of them only receive medication.

Campers between the ages of 7 and 12 were part of the study group

Pelham’s team examined 173 children aged 7 to 12 with ADHD attending the center’s summer treatment program, an eight-week summer camp for children with ADHD and behavioral, emotional and related learning. They examined children during the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016.

The researchers divided the summer into two periods and the students into classes of 10 to 14 year olds. Some children were randomly and unknowingly given medication during the first part of the summer, then a placebo during the second, and others vice versa in the control group. All were tested at the beginning of summer and at the end of each summer period.

The researchers compared the test results along with their daily ratings and concluded that all of the children learned the same amount of content, regardless of the drug. The drugs helped improve test scores slightly when taken on the day of a test, but not enough to improve most children’s grades.

“Children who were medicated during this time did not learn more than children who were not medicated despite doing better in class,” Pelham said.

Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, professor of clinical pediatrics and associate director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said the CRF study confirmed his belief that drugs are just one part of the solution and hopes to see the study replicated in larger, more traditional classrooms to see if the results hold up.

“This study has some fascinating results,” said Brosco, who has an MD and a Ph.D. “It is a reminder that medication alone is insufficient and that behavioral and academic interventions are needed if we want children to thrive.”

Jimena Tavel covers higher education for the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. She is a bilingual journalist with triple nationality: Honduran, Cuban and Costa Rican. Born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, she moved to Florida when she was 17. She earned her journalism degree from the University of Florida in 2018 and joined the Herald shortly after.

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