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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment in Children and Adolescents

Systematic Review Jan 25, 2018

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Purpose of Review

To update a previous review by comparing strategies to diagnose, treat, and monitor children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Key Messages

  • Evidence was insufficient on imaging or electroencephalogram to diagnose ADHD in children 7–17 years of age.
  • Little evidence adds to the 2011 report that found that methylphenidate is effective for children under age 6 with ADHD and that psychostimulants can be effective for children 6–12 years of age.
  • Atomoxetine had slightly higher gastrointestinal effects than methylphenidate.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy may improve ADHD symptoms among children 7–17 years of age.
  • Child or parent training improved ADHD symptoms among children 7–17 years of age but did not change academic performance.
  • Omega-3/6 supplementation made no difference in ADHD symptoms.
  • Future studies are needed to evaluate diagnosis, monitoring, and long-term outcomes for children and adolescents with ADHD managed in usual care settings.

Structured Abstract

Objectives. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common pediatric neurobehavioral disorder often treated in the primary care setting. This systematic review updates and extends two previous Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) systematic evidence reviews and focuses on the comparative effectiveness of methods to establish the diagnosis of ADHD, updates the comparative effectiveness of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments, and evaluates different monitoring strategies in the primary care setting for individuals from birth through 17 years of age.

Data sources. We searched PubMed®, Embase®, PsycINFO®, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews for relevant English-language studies published from January 1, 2011, through November 7, 2016.

Review methods. Two investigators screened each abstract and full-text article for inclusion, abstracted the data, and performed quality ratings and evidence grading. Random-effects models were used to compute summary estimates of effects when sufficient data were available for meta-analysis.

Results. Evidence was contributed from 103 articles describing 90 unique studies. Twenty-one studies related to diagnosis, 69 studies related to treatment, and no studies were identified on monitoring. The Attention and Executive Function Rating Inventory and Childhood Executive Functioning Inventory performed better than the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery for the diagnosis of ADHD for ages 7–17 years (strength of evidence [SOE]=low). Evidence was insufficient on the use of electroencephalography (EEG) or neuroimaging to establish the diagnosis of ADHD for ages 7–17 years. No studies directly assessed the harms to children labeled as having ADHD. Limited additional evidence published since the original 2011 report was available on ADHD medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compared with placebo or compared to different FDA-approved ADHD medications (SOE=insufficient). For atomoxetine and methylphenidate, the most commonly reported adverse events were somnolence and mild gastrointestinal problems. Atomoxetine had slightly higher gastrointestinal effects than methylphenidate (SOE=low). Cognitive behavioral therapy improved ADHD symptoms (SOE=low). Child or parent training improved ADHD symptoms (SOE=moderate) but made no difference in academic performance (SOE=low). Omega-3/6 fatty acid supplementation made no difference in ADHD symptoms (SOE=moderate). Across all treatments, little evidence was reported on the risk of serious adverse events, including cardiovascular risk.

Conclusions. The 2011 AHRQ systematic review highlighted the benefit of psychostimulants for children 6–12 years of age with ADHD for up to 24 months and found that adding psychosocial/behavioral interventions to psychostimulants is more effective than psychosocial/behavioral interventions alone for children with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. This targeted update found insufficient evidence regarding new approaches to the diagnosis (e.g., EEGs, neuroimaging). Little is known about the impact of being labeled as having ADHD. Although cognitive behavioral therapy or child or parent training may decrease symptoms of ADHD, more information is needed regarding the relative benefit of these approaches compared to, or combined with, medication treatment. Omega-3/6 supplementation does not appear to improve ADHD outcomes. No information was identified regarding the optimal strategy for monitoring after diagnosis.

Journal Citation

Goode AP, Coeytaux RR, Maslow GR, et al. Nonpharmacologic Treatments for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics. 2018 Jun;141(6). PMID: 29848556. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-0094.


Kemper AR, Maslow GR, Hill S, Namdari B, Allen LaPointe NM, Goode AP, Coeytaux RR, Befus D, Kosinski AS, Bowen SE, McBroom AJ, Lallinger KR, Sanders GD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment in Children and Adolescents. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 203. (Prepared by the Duke University Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2015-00004-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 18-EHC005-EF. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; January 2018. Posted final reports are located on the Effective Health Care Program search page. DOI: 10.23970/AHRQEPCCER203.

Project Timeline

Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Children and Adolescents

Jun 18, 2015
Topic Initiated
Nov 25, 2015
Jan 25, 2018
Systematic Review
Page last reviewed February 2021
Page originally created January 2018

Internet Citation: Systematic Review: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Diagnosis and Treatment in Children and Adolescents. Content last reviewed February 2021. Effective Health Care Program, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.

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