The Effects of Stimulant Medication on Children’s Learning and Behavior

Learning Tasks

Stimulant medication has proven effective in helping hyperactive children focus their attention, make deliberate rather than spontaneous decisions, and perform better on short-term memory tasks. In addition, it has improved hyperactive children’s ability to read out loud, analyse and define words, comprehend and remember what they read, memorize, spell, and do arithmetic. As well, these improvements seemed to inspire in hyperactive children greater confidence and a keener interest in doing schoolwork.

Some studies, however, have not supported these findings, maintaining that stimulant medication was not as effective in helping hyperactive children’s learning skills as everyone believed. They hypothesized that parents and teachers, knowing children were on medication, anticipated improved learning and behavior, and rated children as doing better academically, even though children’s tests scores did not support this. This is referred to as the halo expectancy.


Looking at medicated hyperactive children’s activity levels, results were more convincing. The most dramatic changes were noted in the classroom, with children fidgeting and getting out of their seats less, and having more direction in their behavior. As well, they demonstrated greater control in their handwriting by making fewer squiggles and breaks in their lines.

Hyperactive children taking medication also appeared more relaxed and better able to think through their alternatives before acting. This allows a positive cycle to develop between you and the child: (a) he is able to do more things right; (b) you no longer are bombarded by his negative, irritating behaviors; (c) you take more notice of his positive behaviors and find more reasons to reinforce him; (d) he experiences success, hears it from others, and feels it inside. This motivates him to take on more challenges, and also encourages you to give him more responsibility. Eventually the child perceives himself in a different way: he still does things wrong, but they don’t matter as much anymore because he does a lot more things right.

Take Shane for instance: a bright hyperactive boy who isn’t doing as well in school as he could. He has a short attention span. Shane starts feeling dumb, and decides he doesn’t want to go to school anymore. One of two things can happen to him: he can get better or he can get worse. If nothing is done to help him learn better, he could develop a string of behavioral problems. On the other hand, if he learns how to pay attention longer, he’ll achieve closer to his potential in school, and feel better about himself. Stimulant medication is one way of helping him pay attention longer, and break out of his downward spiral.

The Other Side of the Story

Pretend I am the principal at your school. One day I come up to you and say, “I’ve noticed you’re having some difficulty staying alert in class. I suggest you take one of these pills before coming to work tomorrow–otherwise don’t bother coming in.” What’s going through your mind? “Who does she think she is?” “She can’t make me take drugs, against my own free will!” “What will the pills do to me?” “What is everybody else going to think?” “Am I weird?” These thoughts may bring up feelings of fear, anger, sadness, or anxiety.

Although this scenario in real life would never happen to you, a variation of it does happen to hyperactive children placed on stimulant medication. Children, however, do not have the same resources as you to fight back, question, and say, “No.” For this reason it is easier to overlook the negative effects stimulant medication has, and focus more on the benefits.

Before we agree to placing a child on medication, I think it’s important we know about the adverse physiological and psychological effects, and ask ourselves, “If it was me, would I take it?”