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Study: High Schoolers with ADHD Receiving Few Evidence-Based Supports

A little over half of high school students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are receiving some kind of services from their schools, such as additional time on tests or extended time to complete homework assignments, a recent study finds. But those particular supports have no reported effectiveness in improving the academic performance of students with ADHD, according to the study published earlier this year in the journal School Mental Health. 

The report surveyed 543 15 to 17-year-old students who were part of the multisite Multimodal Treatment study of ADHD, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The researchers found that 51.6 percent of the students had either an individualized education program or a 504 plan through their school, compared to about 8 percent of students of the same age without ADHD. IEPs and 504 plans, developed by teachers and parents, define the learning objectives of students with disabilities. 

ADHD is not specifically named in one of the disability categories covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; many students with the disorder were categorized as having a "specific learning disability" or "other health impairment," both categories of disability recognized by IDEA. Without any formal education plan, very few students received any accommodations, the study found. 

Of particular concern, the report authors said, is that only about a quarter of students reported receiving school services that have been shown to support students with the disorder. For example, helping students with learning strategies or study skills is evidence-based, but only about a third of the students who received supports got that type of help. Another evidence-based support—facilitating postsecondary transition and employment through teaching work-related, self-advocacy and self-management skills—was provided to only about a quarter of the students receiving ADHD-related supports.

In an interview, Desiree Murray, the lead author and a scientist at the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, said that there are relatively few research-based interventions for older students with ADHD, compared to the resources that are available for younger children. In addition, because older students also have fewer obvious signs of impulsivity or hyperactivity, ADHD symptoms can seem just like a student lacking in motivation. 

"But there are some simple things schools can do such as teaching learning strategies, not just sending students to study hall," Murray said. Parents should also advocate for their children to receive services that are actual tools, rather than services that show little effectiveness in helping students with ADHD pull up their grades, such as modified assignments or "case management." 

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