A study done by Saskia Van der Oord at the University of Amsterdam investigated the effects of methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin: a common stimulant medication for ADHD) on several areas of functioning.
Over 390 studies into ADHD were examined. Although it was shown that Ritalin resulted in a decrease of teacher-rated ADHD symptoms, it was however shown not to be an effective treatment for improvement of academic functioning. This finding is counter-intuitive as it would be expected that an increase in attention skills in the classroom would result in a concurrent improvement in academic skills.
There could be several reasons for this finding that need to be more thoroughly explored. Firstly, just because children are able to sit still and look more focused on medication due to the sedating effects (as seen in teacher ratings), it doesn’t mean that there are similar improvements in the student’s ability to absorb, encode and retain information. Secondly, the core cognitive issues that underlie the learning problems may not actually be improved by the stimulant medication. For example, issues with attention span & working memory are often highly associated with learning, but are not shown to have great improvements with stimulant medication.
This could suggest that better assessment processes are required when diagnosing ADHD in order to understand the core cognitive issues underlying the inattentive symptoms. This way treatment could be more tailored to the actual core processing issues, and it may be found that stimulant medication for some children is not the optimal treatment, or that other treatments may need to be done in combination with medication. It is clear that medication is not the “magic fix” that can be suggested by the media and that often vital areas of functioning are not helped by stimulant medications. Treatment for ADHD should therefore be done at a much more holistic level looking at all areas of life which are affected.
(Source: Van der Oord, et al. (2007). Efficacy of methylphenidate, psychosocial treatments and their combination in school-aged children with ADHD: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 28, 783-800.)