How Does ADHD Affect Thinking Skills?

ADHD and other attention problems in kids affect certain types of thinking skills

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make school hard for some kids. Certain thinking skills may be most affected by attention issues.

A recent study looked at thinking skills for kids with ADHD and kids with attention problems who did not meet the criteria for ADHD. Overall, thinking skills for these kids were good. But they struggled with two specific types of thinking skills: verbal memory and processing speed. Their scores on these two tests were about 80 to 85 percent of what would normally be expected by kids on these tests.

The authors suggested that schools can target these specific thinking skills to better help kids with attention problems.

"Ask a psychiatrist about programs to help improve thinking skills."

The study, led by professor Ulla Ek of the Department of Special Education at Stockholm University, looked to see exactly how thinking skills are affected by ADHD and other attention problems.

A total of 198 kids and teenagers were in the study. Some had a diagnosis of ADHD, and some had attention problems but did not meet criteria for ADHD.

The kids took an IQ test and other tests for verbal memory and processing speed, which are specific aspects of thinking that can affect learning.  Verbal memory is memory for words. Processing speed is a measure of how quickly a child can do a mental task.

The researchers also tested general cognitive function to identify the level of overall thinking skills.

The tests they used are standardized, meaning the average or normal score on these tests is known for kids in general. The researchers compared the test scores of the kids in the study with the normal or average score for those tests.

Of the kids in the study, 18 percent had an IQ less than 70, 26 percent had an IQ between 71 and 84 and 56 percent had an IQ over 85. An IQ between 85 and 115 is considered in the normal range, so over half of the kids in the study were not mentally disabled.

Both kids with ADHD and kids with lesser attention problems did worse than the general population on all the thinking ability tests. All the kids in the study scored between about 85 and 90 percent of normal on the tests.

The kids in the study had higher levels of general cognitive ability than they had on verbal memory and processing speed tests. Kids in this study scored about 90 percent as well on the general cognitive ability tests as kids who were unaffected by attention problems.

Both kids with ADHD and with milder attention problems struggled more with processing speed and verbal memory tests. They scored about 80 to 85 percent of normal on these tests.

The authors concluded that kids with attention problems struggled more with the verbal memory and processing speed tasks. Because these findings applied to kids who did not meet criteria for ADHD, the authors also suggested that these findings have implications for learning in kids who have low-level attention problems, not just kids with ADHD.

The authors said, “Current educational expectations are demanding for children with mild difficulties, and such cognitive information will add to the understanding of the child's learning problems, hopefully leading to a better adapted education than that conventionally available.”

The study was published January 29 in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. The study was funded by the Center for Competence in Care of Stockholm University. The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 30, 2013
Last Updated:
February 3, 2013