What has happened to creativity in children?

written by Jeffrey Zook, Psy.D.


Creativity in children is declining, according to Kyung Hee Kim– professor of educational psychology at the College of William & Mary. After analyzing the scores from 300,000 Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) given to American children and adults, she found that the scores had been rising from 1968 until 1990, but after 1990, the scores began to decline year after year. This decline has been more pronounced over the past 10 years and most significant with children from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Developed by Dr. E. Paul Torrance over 40 years ago, the TTCT is considered to be the best predictive test for creative achievement available and broadly measures "creative potential" in several diverse areas. Over the years, researchers have been tracking those who had taken the TTCT as children. They found that the children who scored high on the creativity index grew up to be successful in their creative accomplishments as adults. The TCTT can predict lifetime creative achievement over three times better than an IQ test.

Creativity can be defined as a process of discovering new ideas or concepts, or making new associations with existing ideas or concepts. It is a combination of divergent thinking and convergent thinking- where a variety of unique ideas come together to form the best solution.

So who are some of the most creative people in America? Looking at recent research, those who show symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Researchers at Harvard University gave several Harvard undergraduates a simple test designed to measure their ability to ignore irrelevant sounds in the surrounding environment, such as background noises. Those who are not so easily distracted by such noises are usually considered to be the most productive in their work.

The Harvard study found that the students considered to be distractible and that did not have the ability to ignore the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment were seven times more likely to be classified as "eminent creative achievers". It appears that not being completely focused while taking in extraneous information allows the mind to generate ideas that would not have occurred otherwise.

The strongest link to creativity was found in those who were distractible and had high IQs. You do not need high intelligence in order to be creative however, and not everyone with symptoms of ADHD or with high intelligence is creative. But it seems the ability to process several things at once, combined with extraordinary thinking skills, could be the key to remarkable creativity.

At the University of Memphis, students were given tests measuring creativity spanning ten diverse domains: drama, music, humor, creative writing, invention, visual arts, scientific discovery, dance, architecture, and culinary arts. The group that had been diagnosed with ADHD scored higher in creativity in all domains compared to the non-ADHD group. While many of the symptoms of ADHD may be defined as limiting in some people, they can be considered a strength in others.

Now if you are wondering why these studies usually involve undergraduate college students, it is because they are easily motivated by promises of extra credit and a better grade! They are also easy to find as they walk around campus.

So what has changed to produce this considerable decrease in measured creativity in children over the past twenty years? Some place the blame on children spending more time watching television and playing video games than before– but children have been doing these things in relatively equal amounts for over 30 years now.

There is something that has dramatically increased during this time however: the use of medication prescribed to children to treat the symptoms of ADHD and various mood disorders. The production of methylphenidate alone has increased 2,400% since 1990.

Let's take a look at the numbers: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that almost 10%, or 5.4 million children from 4 to 17 years of age, had been given a diagnosis of ADHD in 2007. This diagnosis has increased an average of 3% year over year from 1997 to 2006. Boys are more likely to receive this diagnosis than girls, with over 13% of these boys diagnosed with ADHD.

The CDC also found that almost 70% of all children given the diagnosis of ADHD were receiving treatment medication. Once again, the boys were favored over girls with boys nearly three times more likely to take this medication.

Perhaps even more troubling is the recent trend of treating young children with potent antipsychotic medication as well. The Food and Drug Administration recently published a report in 2009 that found over 500,000 children and adolescents in America are taking antipsychotic medication. Columbia University reported a doubling of antipsychotics prescribed to children aged 2 to 5 years old from 2000 to 2007, with only 40% of these children receiving an appropriate mental health assessment.

There are instances where medication taken for ADHD can be helpful to children with severe issues, but overall, improvements seem to be more social than academic in nature. While the medication may work to reduce inattentiveness, task irrelevant activities, and behavioral disturbances in the classroom, it does not seem to have any long-term effect on improved academic performance or success. Distractibility may decrease in the child and sustained concentration may improve with medication, but does this happen at a cost to the cognitive functions of the creative mind? Is society being deprived of some of the most divergent creative thinking?