3 Skills to Help Your Child Remember

Florence Cannon

Prospective memory  — that is, remembering to perform a planned action at some future time — is crucial for managing life’s responsibilities. This article will help parents understand this kind of memory, determine how it shows up in children (and adults) with ADHD, and offer 3 skills that can improve it.

Prospective memory tasks are common in everyday life. Some are simple or even mundane, such as remembering to stop at the store on the way home from work or remembering to call your grandmother to wish her a happy birthday. Others are more critical like remembering to take a life-sustaining medication. Children with ADHD often need to be explicitly taught skills to improve their prospective memory.

Prospective memory is essentially remembering to remember, and there are two common types.

Event-based: remembering to do something when a certain event occurs, like turning in your homework when you enter the classroom or congratulating a friend the next time you see her.

Time-based: remembering to do an action at a particular point in time, like making it to a 6:00 Zumba class.

Both types of Prospective memory involve a four-stage process:

  1. Forming an intention: Deciding to do a specific task in the future.
  2. Retaining the intention: Not getting side-tracked by other tasks.
  3. Returning to the original intention.
  4. Executing the behavior: Following through with the desired task.

Failures of prospective memory usually occur at step two, when we get distracted and forget a task we originally intended to do. However, research has found that people with ADHD also tend to struggle at stage one, neglecting to formulate an intention to reach a goal in the first place.

In the science-fiction movie Paycheck, Ben Affleck’s character is an engineer whose memory is threatened with erasure, so he devises a plan of stuffing 19 seemingly ordinary items into an envelope to remind him of what to do in the future.  His plan is a Hollywood example of the process of prospective memory. Here are some real life skills that you can try:

3 Skills to Improve Prospective Memory

  1. Strengthen the intention with a concrete planIdentifying when and where a specific intention will be carried out can help decrease memory failures.  A concrete plan can improve prospective memory by as much as two to four times in tasks such as exercising and homework completion.  To encourage your child to form concrete plans, have them “look into the future” (perhaps even while holding a “crystal ball”—a marble) and describe what they look like while doing the intended task.  Make sure they include details about what time it is, where they are, and what they will be doing immediately prior to the intended task.
  2. Link the target task to a habit you already have in place.  For example, if you need to take a medication every morning, link it to something else you do every morning such as brushing your teeth.
  3. Use external memory aids to help trigger the memory.  There are many high-tech and low-tech tools for triggering memory, including:
    • Write and refer to lists.  Utilizing a consistent system for tracking “to-do” items helps increase the likelihood of success.
    • Create checklists for tasks that will be repeated (e.g. packing lists you can use repeatedly).
    • Create reminder cues and put them in difficult-to-miss spots.  (e.g. if you want to remember to move the laundry, put the laundry basket in the hall where seeing it will remind you to complete the task.)
    • Don’t delay.  If you want to remember to take your gym clothes with you to work tomorrow, put them in the car while forming the intention, or put them near your car keys.
    • Set calendar alerts on your cell phone that will remind you of an up-coming event.  These are especially helpful for time-based prospective memory tasks.
    • Some GPS systems on Smart Phones can be set to provide an alert when you are in a certain area.  For example, you can set it to remind you to return the library books when you are within a certain distance (e.g., ½ mile) of the library.

Modeling these behaviors at home can be beneficial to your child.  You can talk about how you will need to remember to take the food from the oven at a certain time, so you are setting an alarm.  You can talk about your concrete intention/plan for when and where you plan to fold the laundry that you just brought out of the dryer.  When you get in the car, show your child that you put an important package on the console to remind you to take it to the post office.

In addition to the help that you provide at home, you may need to seek the help of a qualified professional.  When you understand that your child’s difficulties with prospective memory are likely a by-product of ADHD, you can move forward finding strategies and programs that will help your child set and follow goals.   And you will be amazed by how well s/he can remember to remember!

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