Lehigh University
Lehigh University


When failure is not an option

George DuPaul talks about key findings of Project PASS and the success of academic interventions for children with ADHD.

Also, he explains symptoms associated with ADHD.

For years, children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have been tagged as academic underachievers whose time in the classroom tends be anything but rewarding.

It’s a common misperception, according to George DuPaul, professor of school psychology with Lehigh’s College of Education. “People tend to think, ‘If we just treat their behavioral problems, their academic problems will just go away.’”

“But it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “ADHD demands that we look at academic achievement in an entirely different light.”

Understanding ADHD

DuPaul and Asha Jitendra, professor of special education, have spent their careers researching learning disorders in school-aged children. Both know that ADHD has an enormous impact on academic functioning.

That’s because children with ADHD are easily distracted and may have problems being attentive, especially in an environment that is as visually stimulating as the classroom. Depending on the severity of their diagnosis, they can also be highly disruptive and have difficulty engaging their peers and teachers.

Those problems lend themselves to larger social, behavioral and academic issues that can quickly become impediments to their long-term academic development.

Traditionally, research in this area has focused on ways to reduce these symptoms rather than enhance a child’s academic functioning. In some circumstances, psychotropic treatments (the use of medication) have been proven effective in helping students tackle their ADHD symptoms. Behavior modification strategies such as reward systems can also be useful in helping children learn how to sit still or how to focus.

Little attention has been placed on helping children excel in the classroom, however.

Finding hope in the classroom

It’s an important difference, according to DuPaul. Unfortunately, many parents and educators look at medicine or behavioral treatments without resorting to other effective options.

“We wanted to look directly at interventions that were specific to academic problems and see if those could make an impact on reading and math achievement,” he explained. “Both Asha and I believe that the greatest risk facing children diagnosed with this disorder is how they function in school and how, given the right tools, they can learn to become successful academic performers.”

The result of their mutual interest in this area is Project PASS, a five year study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The grant was awarded in 2000 at a time when the institute was starting to place more emphasis on the educational issues related to ADHD.

Since it was first awarded, Project PASS has become the largest study ever conducted on school-based academic interventions for children with ADHD. Over the course of the study, DuPaul, Jitendra and their research assistants tracked the progress of 167 elementary school children who were diagnosed with—or showed symptoms of having—ADHD. A total of 204 teachers across 52 schools participated in the ground-breaking study.

This month, the results of their work were reported in a special ADHD-related issue of The School Psychology Review. DuPaul was also asked to write the Forward for the publication.

As reported in the journal, Project PASS showed that academic interventions alone significantly helped to improve students’ educational experience in such areas as reading fluency, reading comprehension, math fluency and math problem solving.

Jitendra discusses different types of interventions.

Traditional medicinal or behavioral treatments aren’t as effective over the long term in tackling academic difficulties. Estimates show that students with ADHD are twice as likely to fail a grade as their classmates; almost half of students diagnosed with ADHD are held back at least once by the time they reach adolescence.

“Perhaps more than anything else, Project PASS showed that if you want to accelerate and enhance academic functioning, then you have to focus on providing the right kinds of academic interventions,” said Jitendra. “We’re simply expanding the tool box of resources that are available to the ADHD community and addressing the problems that students already have.”

Working collaboratively with teachers and school consultants (school psychologists, for example), the team of Lehigh researchers charted the progress of two cohorts of ADHD students over the course of 18 months. Each cohort was involved in academic consultations, but one experienced a much higher and intensive level of consultation that resulted in a considerably more individualized approach.

Not only were the targeted academic interventions designed to specifically address a student’s weaknesses, but they were more closely monitored and based on direct feedback from the team of Lehigh consultants.

A nod to the future

The results are noteworthy, especially at a time when psychosocial treatments are coming under tight scrutiny. “As a whole group, the students did better academically. Both models were seen to be effective in addressing the academic performance of the students,” said Jitendra.

Though the results indicated that academic interventions alone were well received by the students and generally had a positive impact on their test scores and grades, there was little difference between the performances of the two cohorts.

That means that a more intensive and customized approach may not be necessary to bring about effective growth in academic skills.

“As research continues to show, school-based interventions are really an integral component in strengthening the educational experience of a child with ADHD,” said DuPaul. “The depth of that intervention—and how intensive it needs to be—is still a question mark.”

Jitendra believes the biggest challenge facing the acceptance of academic interventions is requiring educators to think about ADHD differently. “Our greatest challenge is simply asking people to change,” she says. “How do you motivate and encourage educators—in and out of the classroom—to change the way they engage students with ADHD?”

“It’s an obstacle the ADHD community needs to address, because we really have an incredible opportunity to help students with ADHD succeed in an environment that hasn’t been too friendly for them in the past,” she adds.

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Friday, June 29, 2007

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