two young studentsAre young children in differing demographics being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at comparable rates? Research from Penn State University says they are not. According to a recent study, young white children are more frequently diagnosed with ADHD than their black or Hispanic peers, despite having similar rates of ADHD behaviors. The findings underscore the importance of educating parents about treatment for disorders that can negatively impact academic performance.

The research team designed the study to figure out just how soon disparities in ADHD diagnoses begin surfacing in school children. Building off their previous finding that there was a gap in diagnoses between demographic groups in middle and elementary school students, the researchers analyzed data regarding kindergarten students in fall of the school year. They compared teacher-reported behavior of the kindergarten students to information about how many students were diagnosed with ADHD.

The results revealed that the difference in diagnosis rates between ethnic groups begins early. Although the children in all groups shared similar background characteristics and had similar incidence rates of ADHD symptoms, there was a discrepancy in diagnosis rates between white children and both black children and children from homes where a language other than English is spoken. The findings did not indicate whether the same disparity holds true for Hispanic children; it may be only the linguistic factor that is causing disequilibrium between Hispanic and white children. Parents of black children may be reluctant to pursue a diagnosis and parents with limited English skills and or may lack the language skills to do so.

Leaving minority children without a diagnosis and thus without treatment results in more black and Hispanic children exhibiting learning and behavioral problems at school, causing them to fall behind academically. Educators and practitioners need to provide parents—minority parents in particular—with information on how to recognize the symptoms of ADHD and how to pursue diagnosis and treatment.

“One practical application is that these groups of children may have unmet treatment needs. Pediatricians, psychiatrists and school-based practitioners should be sensitive to the possibility that cultural and linguistic barriers are resulting in systematic under-diagnosis for some groups of children,” explained Paul Morgan, associate professor of special education and lead author.

This research is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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