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Kids with ADHD Just May Be Too Young for Their Grades, Study Says

The Short of It

A new study suggests kids who are young for their grades are being diagnosed with ADHD at higher rates. So, do they really have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or are they just immature?

The Lowdown

Children who are at the younger end of the age spectrum in their classes—such as kids with summer or fall birthdays that just made the cutoff—are diagnosed with ADHD much more often than their older peers. According to NPR, studies in Iceland, Canada, Israel, Sweden and Taiwan confirm this; one researcher in Iceland says kids are between 20 and 100 percent more likely to received diagnoses if they are younger.

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The newest body of research on this topic, which was published this week in the Journal of Pediatrics, comes out of Taiwan and finds a 75 percent higher likelihood of younger kids in a particular grade getting diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, according to BBC News, researchers looked at 400,000 kids and found those born in August were twice as likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as compared to their September-born classmates.

The study's lead author, Dr. Mu-Hong Chen, explains, "Our findings emphasize the importance of considering the age of a child within a grade (year-group) when diagnosing ADHD and prescribing medication to treat [it]."

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And as Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital, explained to NPR, most kids start first grade at age 6, but some are 7 years old.

"Within that age range, there is a huge difference in developmental and social and emotional maturity. A 6-year-old is just not the same as a 7-year-old," Spinks-Franklin says.

The behavioral differences teachers and parents notice are what can lead to a misplaced diagnosis.

The Upshot

My daughter is one of the youngest kids in her class, and I do see a difference in maturity between her and her older peers. The thing is, you can't force a kid to grow up, and as Spinks-Franklin says, holding a child back when behavioral differences are noted does not benefit the child, nor does it make correctly diagnosed ADHD go away.

"Children who repeat a grade are at a higher risk of dropping out of high school. They are more likely to be bullied," she says.

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The takeaway: A wrong diagnosis of ADHD can harm a child, both from an over-medication standpoin, and with regards to poor self-esteem. And as the experts noted, by the teen years, younger kids will catch up to their peers, so parents can take comfort in that.

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