Children with ADHD get better faster when first treated with behavioral therapy instead of medication, says a new study.

boy with adhd in classroom
Credit: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

If your child is one of the more than 4 million kids in the United States diagnosed with ADHD, chances are you've thought about starting them on Adderall or Ritalin. You also may have thought about using behavior therapy to supplement the medication. But now a new study has revealed that kids with attention-deficit problems may actually improve faster when a non-medical approach is the first treatment they receive.

For the study—which involved 146 children ages five to 12 with an ADHD diagnosis—half of the kids were randomly assigned a low dose of generic Ritalin. The other half received no medication, but their parents began using behavior-modification techniques based on a system of rewards and consequences.

Behavior therapy works by addressing specific problem behaviors through predictability, routine and increased positive attention. Good behavior—like, say, paying attention to homework for a few moments—is rewarded with a pat on the back, for example. Misbehavior, on the other hand, leads to withheld privileges or enforced time outs.

While the medication route might seem like an easy and quick fix, researchers found it was actually the behavior modification therapy that was more effective and worked faster. Meds, it turns out, work better as a supplemental treatment.

William Pelham of Florida International University, a leader of the study, told the New York Times: "The children who started with behavioral modification were doing significantly better than those who began with medication by the end, no matter what treatment combination they ended up with."

Pretty amazing findings. Could behavioral treatment be a safer, more effective alternative to medication? Researchers says more data is needed. But one thing they do know is that beginning with behavioral therapy right out of the gate is defintiely more cost effective, even if it's later followed up with medication. The study found that it cost an average of $700 less annually per child—an eye opening number for the many parents of children regularly prescribed meds as an initial treatment.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website for more, and follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld