School & District Management

Study Points to Academic Benefits For Adolescents Taking Ritalin

By Debra Viadero — June 06, 2001 2 min read
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The largest study to date testing the effects of Ritalin on teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder suggests that the drug, when used in combination with other interventions, can raise students’ daily academic performance.

For More Information

The study will be available after June 13, 2001 from Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.

Characterized by impulsivity, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is thought to affect about 5 percent of schoolchildren nationwide. Ritalin, the trade name for methylphenidate, is the medication most commonly used to help students with the condition function in the classroom. Most of the research on the stimulant has been conducted with elementary school children. Scientists have known less about how effective the drug is with adolescents.

To find out, researchers from four universities tested the drug on 45 teenagers with ADHD who took part in an eight-week, summer treatment program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The findings were published last week in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.

Each day, the students in the experiment took either a placebo pill or Ritalin dosages ranging from 10 to 30 milligrams. The dosages were randomly given so that all students experienced each medication condition on a weekly basis—a structure researchers call a “crossover design.” The students also attended history lectures, received instruction on note-taking and organization, took daily quizzes, and completed worksheets.

“When they were taking stimulant medication, students were more likely not only to get schoolwork done, but to get it done more accurately than when they were taking a placebo,” said Steven W. Evans, the lead researcher and an associate professor of psychology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. “Scores improved by an average of about 17 percent—a jump that could mean two or three letter grades.”

Other Factors Noted

But researchers were quick to note that the magnitude of the improvements was not due to Ritalin alone.

“Although this was a drug study, these children were in a highly structured, well-run classroom, and they had been taught how to takes notes and become better organized,” said William E. Pelham Jr., a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and another researcher for the study. “The message is that schools need to do both.”

The researchers also found that bigger dosages did not necessarily lead to bigger academic improvements. In some cases, students’ schoolwork suffered when their dosages increased. The researchers said that clinicians often increase children’s dosages when they hit puberty.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Points to Academic Benefits For Adolescents Taking Ritalin

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