Commuter-based cognitive training programs have been marketed for over a decade as interventions that can improve memory and attention in kids with ADHD. The appeal of computerized programs that can have a lasting effect on ADHD symptoms is obvious, especially for parents who have watched their child struggle daily with memory and attention challenges at school and at home. Many parents hope that these programs will be the magic bullet that finally helps their child reach his or her full potential. But, before enrolling their child and committing a significant amount of time and money, parents are faced with the challenge of evaluating the true effectiveness of computer-based programs. This is no small task, particularly given the vast amount of conflicting information available online.
What the Research Says
Unbiased research published by scientists who are unaffiliated with the cognitive training programs themselves provides the most reliable source of information about the programs’ effectiveness. Results from these studies aren’t always easily found in online searches, so many parents may not realize that currently in the United States and internationally there is a sizable investment in research on ADHD and computer-based cognitive training programs. Recently, a number of researchers have combined and analyzed the data from many studies so they could draw more accurate conclusions about the effectiveness of computer programs for kids with ADHD. Results from these studies have consistently indicated that children with ADHD do not show any improvement in ADHD symptoms, academic performance, behavior, or memory at school or at home after completing computer-based programs. When improvements were observed, they were limited to gains on the computer tasks that the children had spent hours practicing through the program. Unfortunately, improvements on computer tasks did not translate into real-world gains. Basically, computer-based programs help kids get better at completing the programs they are using, but they do not lead to observable improvements in ADHD symptoms or functioning.1,2,3
Being an Educated Consumer
The current research suggests that parents should be cautious about enrolling their children in computer-based cognitive training programs for ADHD. For parents who are considering one of the many cognitive training programs currently available, ask the following questions as part of your pre-enrollment evaluation:
Remember- you will see results at home or at school with any effective treatment.
Also, ask yourself and your child the following question:
What activities will your child need to give up in order to find the time needed to complete the computer-based program? Every hour spent alone in front of a computer represents time that is not spent socializing or engaging in physical activity – both of which are especially important for kids with ADHD.
Computer-based cognitive training programs require a significant investment of time and money. Before enrolling, think about your child’s specific challenges and consider alternative targeted interventions with proven track records in the areas where your child needs help the most. These can be academic interventions, social interventions, programs that help kids learn to manage their emotions, or behavioral treatments that target ADHD symptoms specifically. Targeted interventions with a history of proven outcomes are most likely to lead to real-world results for your child with ADHD.
1Rapport, M.D., Orban, S.A., Kofler, M.J., & Friedman, L.M. (2013). Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A meta-analytic review of cognitive, academic, and behavioral outcomes. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(8), 1237-52.
2Sonuga-Barke, E., Brandeis, D., Holtmann, M., Cortese, S. (2014). Computer-based cognitive training for ADHD: a review of current evidence. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, 23(4), 807-24.
3Cortese, S. et al., (2015). Cognitive training for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: meta-analysis of clinical and neuropsychological outcomes from randomized controlled trials. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(3), 164-174
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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