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Taking stimulants for SATs: sadly we taught them that

Posted by Claudia M Gold  June 10, 2012 09:05 PM

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As a general and behavioral pediatrician I admit that I have participated in many conversations that went something like this. In a child's presence a parent says: "He does well in his morning classes, but then his grades are down in the afternoon-can we use something longer acting?" Or, "She did so well at first, but now she's getting 70's. I think she needs a higher dose." These conversations occurred in the setting of a brief follow-up visit for ADHD. These visits might be spread as far apart as 3 to 6 months. What else happened in those months? There was neither the time nor the expectation to address that question in a meaningful way.

Is it any surprise, given that this form, length and frequency of visits for ADHD is the standard of care in pediatrics, that now there is an explosion of abuse of prescription stimulants in the high pressure setting of the college application process? A recent New York Times article Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill addressing this issue states:

The number of prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications dispensed for young people ages 10 to 19 has risen 26 percent since 2007, to almost 21 million yearly, according to IMS Health, a health care information company — a number that experts estimate corresponds to more than two million individuals. But there is no reliable research on how many high school students take stimulants as a study aid. Doctors and teenagers from more than 15 schools across the nation with high academic standards estimated that the portion of students who do so ranges from 15 percent to 40 percent.
My daughter is a senior at one of these "high-pressure private schools" referred to in the article. She confirms these statistics, putting the number at about one third. A previous post, Meds for ADHD: They Work But is that the Right Question?, was inspired by conversation in which she asked me about the ethics of taking these drugs for the SATs. In that post I speak to the need to understand ADHD as a problem regulation of attention, emotion and behavior, and to focus on relationship-based interventions to promote self-regulation. It is the hyperfocus on medication to the exclusion of both understanding of the child's experience, and also other forms of intervention, that has led to this problem in the high school setting.
Relationship-rich interventions include such things as martial arts, music, and team sports (Michael Phelps had severe ADHD), activities that foster relationships and also promote self-regulation. Family systems are often severely strained when a child is struggling, and interventions aimed at supporting the family as a whole are very important. Careful examination of the school setting and accommodations to decrease over-stimulation are similarly necessary. But if the drug makes the symptom go away, there is no motivation to devote effort and resources to make these kinds of changes.
When I asked my daughter today if she had ever taken stimulants before a test she replied that she thought it was a silly idea. Her reason? "If you do well on stimulants it's not really you, and you will end up at a college where you will be miserable. Then you will need to keep taking the drugs." Such a wise child!
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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