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CME

Treatment strategies for ADHD in preschool


and school-age children
Maria Sonnack; Anthony Brenneman, MPAS, PA-C
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T
ABSTRACT he increasing number of children being diagnosed
This review presents current best-evidence treatment
with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
options for children with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) has been a topic of hot debate among
disorder (ADHD), including a review of current literature healthcare providers and the community in recent years.
on the efficacy and safety of psychostimulant medica- Due to shortages of psychiatrists, as well as other factors,
tions, particularly methylphenidate, used in treating many parents rely on their primary care providers to
preschoolers and school-age children with ADHD. provide ADHD treatment for their children. Because
Keywords: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ADHD is within the scope of psychiatry and behavioral
children, psychostimulants, methylphenidate, growth, medicine, many primary care providers may feel uncom-
behavioral therapy
fortable diagnosing and treating it. However, the increased
diagnoses of ADHD in children and provider shortage
mean that primary care providers, including physician
Maria Sonnack is a student in the PA program at the University of Iowa’s
Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa. Anthony Brenneman is
assistants (PAs), must understand current best treatment
director of the PA program at the University of Iowa. The authors have guidelines for this common childhood psychiatric condi-
disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise. tion. For clarification, this paper analyzes literature
DOI: 10.1097/01.JAA.0000453859.08958.31 focused on children ages 3-5 years as preschoolers and
Copyright © 2014 American Academy of Physician Assistants children ages 6-12 as school-age children.1

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Treatment strategies for ADHD in preschool and school-age children

Key points Learning objectives


The increasing number of children being diagnosed with Identify treatment strategies for preschool children
ADHD and a shortage of psychiatrists mean that primary with ADHD.
care providers must understand treatment guidelines for Identify treatment strategies for school-age children
ADHD. with ADHD.
Primary care providers should evaluate for ADHD in Recognize the risks and benefits of psychostimulant
children ages 4 to 18 years who exhibit academic or medications for the treatment of ADHD in children.
behavioral problems and symptoms of inattention,
hyperactivity, or impulsivity.
Children with ADHD often have comorbid psychiatric school and mental health clinicians involved in the child’s
disorders.
care.5 Resources for clinicians, patients, and families can
Psychostimulant medications are the first-line therapy be found at http://www.aap.org.
for ADHD and have been found safe and effective in
Other diagnoses also need to be ruled out. ADHD is the
preschoolers.
most commonly diagnosed psychiatric condition in chil-
dren.4,7 Most children with ADHD also have other psychi-
atric conditions, including oppositional defiant disorder
EPIDEMIOLOGY (54% to 84% of patients), conduct disorder, substance abuse
According to the CDC, 5.2 million children ages 3 to 17 disorders (15% to 19%), mood disorders (33%), coexisting
years (about 8.4%) have ever been diagnosed with ADHD.2 learning or language problems (25% to 35%), and anxiety
About 12% of boys have ever been diagnosed with ADHD, disorders (up to 33%).8-13 According to the DSM-5, a dif-
compared with 4.7% of girls.2 The number of boys diag- ferential list of the following should be considered in mak-
nosed with ADHD is continually rising, leading community ing the diagnosis of ADHD: oppositional defiant disorder,
members and healthcare providers to ask if this increase is intermittent explosive disorder, other neurodevelopmental
due to a true presence of ADHD, or whether young, hyper- disorders, specific learning disorder, intellectual develop-
active, “typical” boys are being incorrectly diagnosed. Scott mental disorder, autism spectrum disorder, reactive attach-
Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz make a good point in their ment disorder, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders,
article, Are Doctors Diagnosing Too Many Kids with bipolar disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder,
ADHD, that although the data demonstrate a possible substance abuse disorders, personality disorders, psychotic
overdiagnosis of ADHD in children, especially in boys, disorders, medication-induced symptoms of ADHD, and
undertreatment of ADHD may be a bigger problem than neurocognitive disorders.6 Current evidence suggests that
overtreatment.3 Lilienfeld and Arkowitz are not the only the main cause of ADHD is genetic.14
ones to bring this issue to light. Jensen and colleagues also
indicate in their article that data exist suggesting that phy- TREATMENT
sicians in the community tend to use lower-than-optimal The use of psychostimulant medications such as methyl-
doses in treating ADHD in children.4 Also according to phenidate in preschoolers is a topic of concern for provid-
Jensen and colleagues, “providers and parents alike may ers and parents. Although the DSM-5 does not cite devel-
be sometimes afraid of the medication and too often settle opmentally adjusted ADHD criteria for diagnosis of the
for a less than complete response.”4 Based on this informa- disorder in preschoolers, current surveys report that 2%
tion, providers not only must understand how to properly to 6% of preschoolers meet full criteria for ADHD.15-17
diagnose ADHD in children and adolescents, but also how According to Greenhill and colleagues, due to the lack of
to appropriately treat it. appropriate criteria for diagnosis of ADHD in preschool-
ers, efforts among the psychiatric community have focused
DIAGNOSIS on redefining the current diagnostic criteria, such as the
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment (PAPA), for children
primary care providers should evaluate for ADHD in any in this age group.18 Because of the large prevalence of
child ages 4 through 18 years who has academic or behav- behavioral problems and associated comorbidities within
ioral problems and symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, this age group, criteria must be redefined to avoid overdi-
or impulsivity.5 The AAP’s clinical practice guideline on agnosis and to assure proper identification and treatment
ADHD recommends using the Diagnostic and Statistical of those who need it.
Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, (DSM-5) to make Preschoolers with ADHD are more frequently suspended
the diagnosis of ADHD.6 This includes documenting from preschool and/or daycare due to disruptive behav-
impairment in more than one major setting. Information ior, more frequently suffer from academic impairment,
needed to make the diagnosis should come from a mix of and are more frequently placed in special education
reports from parents or guardians, teachers, and other programs than same-aged controls.19-21 Preschoolers with

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CME

ADHD also have an increased incidence of comorbidities, Parent behavior training teaches parents how to best
as well as increased rates of developmental delays, lan- manage problem behaviors in their children, with a focus
guage problems, and high rates of underachievement in on effective discipline strategies that use rewards and non-
reading and math.20,22,23 For this reason, clinicians must punitive consequences, and promote a healthy, positive
appropriately diagnose and effectively treat ADHD in relationship between parent and child.7 Commonly used
this age group. programs include the Positive Parenting Program, Incredible
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psy- Years Parenting Program, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy,
chiatry (AACAP) recently released updated recommenda- and the New Forest Parenting Program.7 Parent behavior
tions for assessing and treating children and adolescents training programs have been shown to reduce disruptive
with ADHD (Table 1). Because these recommendations behaviors in preschoolers, including ADHD behavioral
do not specifically cover preschoolers, we will present symptoms, as well as increase confidence in parenting skills
current best evidence for treatment of ADHD in this age among parents of these children.7 A significant reason for
group. Interventions accepted for the treatment of ADHD failure of these programs is lack of adherence to completion
in preschoolers are parent behavior training, psychophar- of the recommended number of sessions.7
macologic medications (including psychostimulant and Several sources recommend psychostimulants, such as
nonstimulant medication), and community care. methylphenidate, as second-line treatment of ADHD in
Psychostimulants have long been the gold standard of preschoolers.5,7,18,24,25 The Preschool ADHD Treatment
treatment of ADHD in children and adolescents. However, Study (PATS) is being used widely as current best evidence
because very little research has been done to examine the on the efficacy and safety of these drugs in preschoolers.
implications of these drugs in the preschoolers, the FDA PATS demonstrated that treatment with methylphenidate
does not recommend their use as first-line therapy in chil- significantly reduced ADHD symptom scores compared
dren under age 6 years. Based on a review of current lit- to placebo (P<0.001 during the titration phase, and P<0.02
erature, parent behavior training has been suggested as during the active phase).24 According to PATS, five adverse
first-line therapy for treatment of ADHD in at-risk pre- reactions occurred more often with higher doses of meth-
schoolers.4,7,24 Doses for psychostimulants to treat ADHD ylphenidate when compared with lower doses and placebo:
should be titrated according to patient response to the loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, upset stomach, social
medication, and not to a specific goal dose or specific dose withdrawal, and lethargy.24,25 Preschoolers taking methyl-
for weight. Start low, and titrate up slowly until a thera- phenidate also seemed to have higher rates of emotional
peutic response has been achieved. lability than their older counterparts.24,25 In their research

TABLE 1. AACAP recommendations in the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with ADHD1

• Recommendation 1: Screening for ADHD should be part • Recommendation 8: If none of the above agents result in
of every patient’s mental health assessment. satisfactory treatment, carefully review the diagnosis, then
consider behavioral therapy and/or the use of other medi-
• Recommendation 2: Evaluation of the preschooler, child,
cations not approved by the FDA for ADHD treatment.
or adolescent for ADHD should consist of clinical inter-
views with the parent and patient, obtaining information • Recommendation 9: Patients on drug therapy for ADHD
about the patient’s school or daycare functioning, evalua- should be monitored for treatment-related adverse drug
tion for comorbid psychiatric disorders, and review of the reactions.
patient’s medical, social, and family histories.
• Recommendation 10: If a patient has a robust response
• Recommendation 3: If the patient’s medical history is unre- to drug treatment and subsequently shows normal
markable, laboratory or neurologic testing is not indicated. academic, family, and social function, drug treatment of
• Recommendation 4: Psychologic and neuropsychologic ADHD alone is satisfactory.
tests are not mandatory for the diagnosis of ADHD, but • Recommendation 11: For patients who have a less-than-
should be performed if the patient’s history suggests low optimal response to medication, or patients with stressors
general cognitive ability or low achievement in language or in family life, psychosocial treatment in conjunction with
mathematics relative to the patient’s intellectual ability. medication may be beneficial.
• Recommendation 5: Evaluate the patient with ADHD for • Recommendation 12: Assess patients periodically to
comorbid psychiatric disorders. determine whether treatment should be continued or
• Recommendation 6: Develop a well-thought-out and whether symptoms are in remission. Treatment should
comprehensive plan for the patient with ADHD. continue as long as the patient has symptoms that cause
impairment.
• Recommendation 7: The initial psychopharmacologic
treatment of ADHD should be a trial with an FDA-approved • Recommendation 13: Monitor height and weight through-
agent for treating ADHD. out treatment for patients on ADHD medication.

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Treatment strategies for ADHD in preschool and school-age children

on the safety and tolerability of methylphenidate in pre- who may benefit more from combination treatment.36,37 These
schoolers, Wigal and colleagues reported that certain results also may have important implications for public health
adverse reactions (including irritability, tearfulness, sadness/ because lower psychostimulant dosages are needed for treat-
depression, and listlessness/tiredness) decreased over the ment of core ADHD symptoms when medical management
10 months of maintenance treatment, which suggests is used in combination with behavioral therapy.36
tolerance of these adverse reactions.25 At 3- and 8-year follow-up, the Multimodal Treatment
The PATS researchers reported only one serious adverse Study of Children with ADHD showed a similar superior
reaction—a possible seizure—that may have been related effectiveness of psychostimulant medication use and com-
to the use of methylphenidate.24 Although many providers bination treatment in comparison to other cited treatments.
have been concerned about cardiovascular effects of psy- However, in the original study as well as the follow-ups, all
chostimulant drugs in children of all ages, Wigal and col- of the treatment groups showed an improvement in core
leagues reported no cardiovascular adverse reactions in ADHD symptoms over baseline.38,39 Although therapies
their study.25 Although the data reported in PATS showed including medical management appear to be superior to
significant reductions in ADHD symptoms among par- other treatments in core symptom reduction, no significant
ticipants, the degree of effect with use of methylphenidate differences have been observed between any treatment groups
in preschoolers in this study was lower than what was in regards to oppositional/aggressive behaviors, social skills,
reported in the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children parent-child relations, and academic achievement.4
with ADHD, which studied children ages 6-12 years.24 Jensen and colleagues, writing about the implications
Rating attention in preschoolers presents a special difficulty of the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with
because most preschool settings emphasize socialization ADHD for primary care providers, noted that the study’s
with others more than performing cognitive tasks.24 results suggest that primary care providers “tend to use
Swanson and colleagues studied the effects of psycho- lower than optimal doses and twice daily, rather than
stimulants on growth rates in small children.26 They found three times daily, dosing.”4 A considerable difference
that participants in the PATS study had height gains about between the medication monitoring for the medical man-
20% less than expected, and weight gains about 55% less agement/combination therapy groups in the study and
than expected. These differences were consistent with the community care groups is that the pharmacotherapists
observed reductions in the participants’ older counterparts in the study used monthly medication monitoring with
in the Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with follow-up visits compared with the standard twice-yearly
ADHD.26 Pliszka and colleagues, who also studied growth primary care provider visits in the community.4 The
issues in children with ADHD treated with psychostimu- authors make a valid point in noting that this twice-yearly
lants, recommend three to four assessments of growth each approach may lead to higher levels of nonadherence
year as being sufficient monitoring of growth in children among patients and caregivers, as well as less than opti-
treated with psychostimulants such as methylphenidate.26,27 mal treatment of core symptoms due to under- or over-
The general consensus is that psychostimulants are relatively dosing.4 Jensen and colleagues also noted that children
safe and generally well tolerated as ADHD treatment for with common comorbidities, such as anxiety and oppo-
preschoolers.24-26,28-35 sitional defiant disorder, may benefit from medical man-
Treatment of ADHD in school-age children (ages 6 to agement, and behavioral therapy alone may actually be
12 years) follows the accepted gold standard treatment contraindicated in these patients.4
with psychostimulant medications such as methylphenidate.
The Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD CONCLUSION
is respected by many in the area of child psychiatry as According to current guidelines and recent studies, ADHD
current best evident treatment for school-age children with in children should first be treated with a psychostimulant
ADHD. That study compared treatment with medication, medication such as methylphenidate. However, current
psychosocial treatment, combined treatment, and commu- guidelines suggest that preschoolers should begin with
nity-treatment/assessment and referral.36 The results favored behavioral therapy, followed by psychostimulant medica-
psychostimulant treatment alone or in combination with tions. PATS demonstrated that psychostimulants are safe
behavioral therapy for treatment of core ADHD symptoms, to use in preschoolers, but should be used cautiously because
over other treatments.36 The researchers reported that of this age group’s increased sensitivity to adverse reactions
lower doses of psychostimulant medication were needed such as irritability, tiredness, and decreased appetite. JAAPA
when these drugs were used in combination with behavioral
therapy, compared with using psychostimulants alone.36 Earn Category I CME Credit by reading both CME articles in this issue,
reviewing the post-test, then taking the online test at http://cme.aapa.
The study also noted important implications of the similar-
org. Successful completion is defined as a cumulative score of at least
ity in effectiveness of medical management alone versus in 70% correct. This material has been reviewed and is approved for
combination with behavioral therapy in children with co- 1 hour of clinical Category I (Preapproved) CME credit by the AAPA. The
occurring disorders, and those with fewer resources at home, term of approval is for 1 year from the publication date of October 2014.

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