Watching her son Ian wiggle and play with his fingers while the rest of his kindergarten class sat quietly in the library listening to their teacher read aloud, Rachel Hastings, 46, had an epiphany.
"It was a moment that told me that his inability to sit still was beyond his capability," Hastings said.
Soon after, her son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), a condition characterized by poor concentration, hyperactivity, impulsivity and impulsiveness. Because the condition can be associated with learning disorders as well, children with ADHD often have difficulty performing well in school.
Hastings sought treatment and opted to put her son on medication for ADHD as a way for him to control his inability to sit still during class. Within a week, Ian's teacher told Hastings how differently he was behaving.
"There was a clear benefit," Hastings said. "Before, even though he was learning to some degree, he still couldn't sit."
And there may be even greater academic benefits for children like Ian as they grow up. Grade schoolers who take medication for their ADHD can improve their long-term academic success, particularly in math and reading comprehension, compared to children with ADHD who do not take medication, according to a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics.
Using data from the U.S. Education Department's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, researchers compared standardized math and reading scores of nearly 600 children over six years, beginning in kindergarten at age 5. Out of the 7 percent of this nationally representative group that was diagnosed with ADHD, 57 percent began taking medication.
Over time, the children with ADHD who took medication for it scored 2.9 points higher in standardized math tests and 5.4 points higher on standardized reading tests than their unmedicated peers with ADHD.
"For many decades we've known that the medications used to treat ADHD help in about 80 percent of cases with attention, impulse control and problem behavior," said Stephen Hinshaw, a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the authors of the study. "What's not been known is whether the medication has significant impact on learning and achievement in school."
Normal academic progress at a young age is important for later academic success. Falling behind by failing to learn basic math, reading, reasoning or play skills can make it difficult to catch up to peers as a child gets older.
In this way, the behavioral symptoms children with ADHD display when they are young -- inattentiveness, constant moving, daydreaming -- can translate to performance problems as they progress in school and academic requirements become more sophisticated.
"If we find in first and second grade a child who is having significant problems associating symbols with sounds or reading basic sight words, the common assumption may be to wait a couple of years," Hinshaw said. "Now in fourth grade, they are reading at a first grade level. That has been costly."
Hinshaw stressed that it is not necessary to teach every three-year-old to read or to medicate all children who progress slowly in school. Rather, early detection and treatment of ADHD based on a child's history and class observations for the classic symptoms, coupled with significant academic struggles, can significantly impact their future academic success.