ADHD medications help children concentrate, but they don’t seem to offer any long-term benefits – academic or otherwise. Katherine Sharpe delves into the research:
How can medication that makes children sit still and pay attention not lead to better grades? One possibility is that children develop tolerance to the drug. Dosage could also play a part: as children grow and put on weight, medication has to be adjusted to keep up, which does not always happen. And many children simply stop taking the drugs, especially in adolescence, when they may begin to feel that it affects their personalities. Children may also stop treatment because of side effects, which can include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and mood swings, as well as elevated heart rate.
Or it could be that stimulant medications mainly improve behavior, not intellectual functioning. In the 1970s, two researchers, Russell Barkley and Charles Cunningham, noted that when children with ADHD took stimulants, parents and teachers rated their academic performance as vastly improved. But objective measurements showed that the quality of their work hadn’t changed. What looked like achievement was actually manageability in the classroom. If medication made struggling children appear to be doing fine, they might be passed over for needed help, the authors suggested. Janet Currie, an economist at Princeton University in New Jersey, says that she might have been observing just such a phenomenon in the Quebec study that found lower achievement among medicated students.