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Medications for ADHD: no guarantee of academic (or other) success

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  July 12, 2013 07:33 AM

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Medications for ADHD can help kids concentrate--but they can't control what they concentrate on. 

That's a really interesting and important message that is emerging from recent studies--and it's a message that parents of children with ADHD need to listen to and understand.

In a recent study out of Canada, researchers looked at kids with ADHD and found that when it came to academic success, being on medication didn't make that big a difference. In fact, some kids on meds actually did worse.

How could this be? Don't the medications help them pay attention? Well, yes, they do. But it's a short-term thing--and, as I said, they can't control what they pay attention to. As one expert quoted in a really great Wall Street Journal article about this said, if a teen with ADHD takes medication and goes to the library to study, and then a friend comes to talk, it may just be that the medication will help him pay better attention to that conversation!

While attention and concentration are crucial for academic (or any) success, academic success is so much more than attention and concentration. Being really successful at a task involves organization and planning and self-control. If you study all the wrong things for a test you won't do well, no matter how hard you concentrate. If you can't plan out your time to get long-term assignments done and end up leaving too much to the last minute, well, ADHD medication isn't going to make the assignment smaller.

Success in school and life also requires family support, self-esteem, and other intangibles that don't fit nicely into medicine bottles.

It's becoming more and more clear that ADHD isn't just a kid condition; it's a lifetime disorder, a chronic disease with effects that can last a lifetime. A while back I wrote about this, and about how parents of kids with ADHD need to be sure that their children are getting regular mental health care, have the best possible school program, and get care from a doctor who knows about ADHD and is aware of all the possible effects it can have. 

What I'd add now is that it's really crucial that parents not think of medication as taking care of the problem. It can be tempting to think: Junior is on medication, we've got that covered. But that's dangerous thinking. Talk to your doctor about all the ways you can help your child and be sure that he has all the skills and support he needs as he grows.

You can learn more at the CDC's ADHD page. And here's a video from WSJ Live that summarizes Shirley Wang's post:

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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