How Medications Impact Student Learning & Development

Instructor: Tawnya Eash

Tawnya has a master's degree in early childhood education and teaches all subjects at an elementary school.

Educators wear many hats these days. Take a look at this lesson to review various prescribed medications your students may be taking as well as the effects they may have on their education.

Why Do Students Use Medications?

Meet Bob. He is a sixth grader who was diagnosed with ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, when he was in second grade. With the use of a positive behavior plan and prescribed medication, Bob is able to remain on task three out of four times within a class period. He actively participates and can get back on track with a simple prompt.

However, right before Thanksgiving break, you notice the following:

  • Increased irritability
  • Inability to focus with numerous prompts

After sharing your observations with Bob's mom, she explains that the doctors are adjusting his medication, and it will take a few weeks for his body to adjust.

This type of situation occurs very often if you're an educator. You'll come across many different students with varying abilities and even learning disabilities. Common problems your students may face include ADHD, depression, epilepsy, and some form of autism. In order to help these students strive to the best of their ability, you may work with their parents, behavior specialists, and others to come up with a plan for intervention that will best meet the needs of the child. Your goal is to not only teach students the academics they need to know, but also to help develop the whole student—physically, socially, and emotionally. Thus the phrase, ''educators wear many hats!''

Sometimes medications are prescribed by the student's doctor(s) to help him/her learn, communicate, and function during the school day and at home. However, this, of course, comes with its own disadvantages. Putting a child on medication is a difficult decision for parents, and you may be required, as the teacher, to help in determining if medication is benefiting a student during the learning process.

Impact of Medication

Any student can have a hard enough time overcoming obstacles that arise in the classroom, such as with learning, working with others, and being responsible. It becomes even more complex when students have other adversities to overcome. Acquiring new information involves using the ability to focus, completing multiple tasks at once, and feeling confident. Any or all of these qualities necessary for learning to take place can be affected by medications students take.

Take a look at the image to review common medications students may take:

Commonly Prescribed Medications for Students

Let's dig a little deeper!


Stimulants are medications that increase alertness, energy, and attention. They are often used for students with ADHD, like Bob from the beginning of the lesson. Stimulants are meant to help students focus as they increase levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain.

Common stimulant names you may hear are Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta. These medications help keep students calm enough so that they can focus, stay organized, and complete tasks. For example, with a stimulant, Bob would be better capable of following the multiple steps in long division. The use of stimulants doesn't necessarily mean that students will learn and develop better, just that they will be capable of paying attention enough to learn the steps and tasks they need to complete in order to be successful.

Possible side effects of stimulants include anxiousness, jitters, irritability, and decreased appetite. They may be habit forming or lead to overdose if used in large amounts.


Depression plagues adults and children. Anti-depressants are medications that are used in treating a state of deep despondency people go through. People struggling with depression often feel a lack of worth, inadequacy, and lack of energy; they could even have sleep trouble. Imagine how difficult it would be for students to make it through their school day if they're already exhausted from the night before and feel as if nothing they do is good enough.

Oftentimes, medications and therapy help treat depression or anxiety disorders. However, researchers are exploring the best treatments for children. Studies show there are less side effects from Prozac and Zoloft, compared to other anti-depressants, because they are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are a type of drug meant to target serotonin levels and help treat depression.

Side effects:

  • Students may exhibit unusual changes in behavior or mood.
  • Students may be easily agitated or fight sleeplessness.
  • Students may even withdraw from normal situations.

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