If You Put Your Kid on Adderall, Don’t Hope for Better Grades

Sorry, parents: A new study shows for that boys, classroom performance actually gets worse.

Predictably, a Wall Street Journal story reporting on the fact that ADHD drugs don’t improve academic performance is garnering comments bifurcated between “My child would be lost without these drugs” and—one of my favorites—“Imagine if the ADHD diagnosis and medications had been around when Einstein was a kid. Among other things, we’d probably still think energy and matter were immutable and distinct.” Deciding whether to put a child on these meds is one of the toughest decisions a parent has to make. The good news, if there is good news, is that long-term studies of their effects are finally being done. The bad news is, they don’t seem to do much at all.

In the latest piece of the puzzle, the June release of an 11-year Canadian study of 4,000 students showed that boys on ADHD drugs did worse in school than boys with ADHD symptoms who weren’t medicated, while girls on the meds had more “emotional problems” than their unmedicated peers. The study flummoxed scientists, because they’ve proven that Adderall and Ritalin improve attention, focus and self-control. Kids taking ADHD meds do better on memory tasks—in fact, they do as well as control kids without ADHD. But the benefits don’t seem to translate academically.

As for the explosion in off-prescription use of such meds, particularly by college students, the Wall Street Journal article discusses the work of University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah, who’s been studying the cognitive benefits of Adderall for those without ADHD symptoms. (I wrote about taking Adderall myself here, in the July issue of Philadelphia magazine.) Her research, she told WSJ, shows “very small effects—not zero but not a whole heck of a lot of difference.” It could be the new evidence will put enough of a dent in these drugs’ mythology to dampen the appetite for them. At the very least, it should help parents think through exactly what they think—and hope—such drugs can do.

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