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ADHD: results of the Durham Schools trials

Andrew Westerman
BSc(Hons) PGCE
Educational Consultant and Regional Trainer
National Remodelling Team

Learning conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and the autistic spectrum are all on the increase, with perhaps 20% of the UK child population being affected.(1) Evidence is showing that supplementation with long-chain fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 oils) may play a large part in improving such conditions.
The problem is that the typical Western diet does not include enough of these essential fatty acids and often contains large amounts of harmful saturated fats. Trials now show that supplementation with specific long-chain fatty acids, such as marine or botanical oils, that play an important role in the development of the eye and brain, especially vision, coordination, learning ability, memory and concentration, can have significant benefits.
During 2002, Durham Local Education Authority with Oxford University and The Dyslexia Trust used eye q(TM) in a six-month-long trial to evaluate how fatty acid supplementation can affect learning conditions.  As head teacher of a school with a high proportion of Special Needs pupils, and a concern about the impact of diet on children's learning and behaviour, I was keen to take part. More than 100 children at 12 County Durham schools participated, and over 12,000 individual assessments were made.(2)
For the first three months, half of the participants were placed on the active treatment and half were given dummy placebo capsules. It was double-blinded, so neither those taking capsules nor those administering them knew which participants had which. For the second three months of the trial, all children were placed on active treatment. Some of the measures that were assessed were: reading, spelling, writing, perceptual skills, and excitability and hyperactivity (ADHD).
Dramatic results were quickly seen. At the start of the trial, many of the children were well below their chronological age for reading and spelling. At three months, the children in the active group saw average improvements in reading (9.5 months), spelling (6.5 months) and behaviour compared with the placebo group, where no significant improvement was made. Following crossover, at between three and six months of starting the trial, children switching from placebo to active capsules made an average reading gain of 13.5 months. The children who had been on eye q(TM) from the start of the trial continued to make reading gains over and above what would be expected.
All this was exciting, but the effect on ADHD was even more dramatic. After three months, there was little change in the placebo group, but the active group showed improvements in 11 out of 13 ADHD scales of the Conners' Teacher Rating Scales. The percentage of children within the clinical range for an ADHD diagnosis reduced significantly for the active group, and dropped by only 1% for the placebo. On transfer to active, the placebo group showed improvements similar to those seen in the active group during the first half of the study, while the active group continued to improve. The effect sizes were impressive: 0.55 for the first three months and 0.70 over six months for children receiving fatty acid treatment throughout. This compares with 0.78 for methylphenidate.(3)
The progress of one of my pupils, Elliot Best, was followed in The Human Mind television series presented by Sir Robert Winston. His story was typical of the changes that occurred in some pupils. We decided to extend the work into the Nursery of Timothy Hackworth Primary School, where I was the Head Teacher. I spoke with parents and staff, and it was agreed that a small-scale study would take place. Parents were very keen for their children to be involved, and a supplement was given at home and in the nursery.
A range of indicators were selected to measure the children's progress. There were the usual assessments that take place for children on entry to nursery school, and, in addition, time on task, interaction with peers and adults, and general levels of behaviour were observed. Evidence of change was sought from parents and teachers. The children's social skills and language development were observed to determine whether their ability to interact with adults and each other had improved.  Identifying and addressing problems in concentration at such an early stage had a positive effect on the learning outcomes of children in our school. Around 30% of the young children involved showed rapid improvement that was picked up both by staff and parents.
Education, like many public services, is subject to constant initiatives, but most are aimed at the skills of staff and content and delivery of the curriculum. There is, however, increasing emphasis on the capacity of children to learn. Interventions that help improve memory or make pupils more calm and able to participate in lessons are vitally important. I now spend much of my time talking to schools keen to apply this understanding and coordinating trials into children's diet, learning and behaviour using eye q(TM). In many cases, firsthand observations of transformation have persuaded schools to begin a supplementation programme as well as enter into discussions with parents and school meal providers. For many children familiar with failure and frustration in the classroom, things are beginning to change for the better and the future looks brighter.

References

  1. Foundation for people with learning disabilities. Available from http://www.learningdisabilities.org.uk
  2. Durham LEA. Available from http://www.durhamtrial.org
  3. Richardson AJ, Montgomery P.A randomised, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics 2005;115:1360-6.