At first, I was skeptical. Could prescribed medication really help children diagnosed with ADHD? I became convinced the answer is yes after several years of working as a counselor. I witnessed children dramatically improve their functioning in school and social situations after taking medication.
The case of John* is an excellent example. After three years of taking Adderall, he requested to discontinue using his medication at the start of fifth grade because he thought it was no longer necessary. Often when kids are doing well they think they don’t need medication anymore. It is similar to when you take Tylenol for a headache: When you feel better, you don’t take it. Kids assume the same for their ADHD medication.
The first month without Adderall, John thought he was doing fine, but his mid-term progress report said otherwise. He was receiving a D in math and Cs in his other subjects. His parents wanted him to go back on the medication to see if there would be an improvement.
After taking Adderall again for a week, John’s mother checked in with his teachers, who reported a dramatic improvement in both the quality of his schoolwork and his ability to pay attention during class.
“He is a totally different kid. He stopped fidgeting, and he was able to focus for extended periods of time. His responses to the question were thoughtful and correct,” they said.
John continued to take his medication for the remainder of the school year and received an A in math. He received As and Bs in his other classes, which resulted in his making honor roll. He proudly displayed his certificate in his room.
I’ve worked with many children who experienced similar positive effects of taking medication to help their ADHD.
Improved Grades in School
Most schools require kids sit still and pay attention for six hours, which is exactly what students with ADHD struggle with. The National Resource on ADHD states that prescribed medication can help attention span, impulsivity and focus, especially in structured environments. All of these improved behaviors can lead to better grades in school.
Additionally, a study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health found students who took medication for ADHD did better in math and reading compared to students with ADHD who did not take medication.
Improved Social Skills
Children with ADHD often have difficulty making friends because they may not pay attention to social cues. Their impulsive behaviors can also be annoying or hurtful to their peers. Sometimes their impulsivity can lead to aggression.
One child I worked with thought other kids were making fun of him. When I investigated this situation, I found the children actually wanted to be friends with him. He was misreading the other children’s social cues, causing him to feel both angry and left out.
According to a National Institute of Mental Health-sponsored study, children who took ADHD medication showed more improved social skills and peer relations than children in the non-medicated comparison group after 14 months.
Often children with ADHD have poor self-esteem due to the difficulties they experience in school and social situations. By taking medication, children can improve both their social skills and school performances, which, in turn, would improve their self-esteem. As was the case with John, proudly displaying his honor roll status in his room.
Research studies have also examined how ADHD medication can be beneficial in sports settings. A study done at the University of Kentucky found children who took medication for ADHD performed better during baseball games.
However, medication isn’t a magic pill. I like to use the analogy that medication is like a shovel. A person can dig a hole with their hands, but if they use a shovel it will be easier. But the shovel is not going to magically dig the hole; the person still needs to pick up the shovel and dig. Medication can be a tool that helps make it easier for children with ADHD to focus and be less impulsive, but they still must put in the effort to complete their schoolwork.
Medication can also have side effects and may not be effective for everyone. There are other ways to treat ADHD, such as counseling, behavioral management and alternative treatments, such as acupuncture. Often a combination of counseling and medication are most effective. Ultimately, the child and parents must make an informed decision about which method or methods will work best for them.
*name has been changed for privacy
Cheryl Maguire has a master’s in counseling psychology. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Parents Magazine, AARP and many other publications. You can find her on Twitter at @CherylMaguire05