Working on Your Child’s Working Memory: Use Systems and Structures

Working memory is our internal Post-it note, the place where we hold information temporarily before we take action or move it to long-term storage. It’s where we put phone numbers before we can dial them; it’s where we keep our ideas while having a conversation, and numbers when doing mental arithmetic.

Working memory is also where kids and adults with ADHD experience significant challenge. If your child knows every line of Toy Story or X-Men but can’t remember where he put his baseball glove a minute ago, you are not alone! This is a very common, and often frustrating, issue for ADHD families. How can systems and structures help?

ADHD and the Working Memory

ADHD is a neurobiological condition, rooted in the brain, and impacting it’s executive functions. The executive functions are a group of mental processes that encompass everything from organization and behavior regulation, to time management and working memory.  As Dr. Thomas Brown explains, people with ADHD often have “difficulty holding one or several things ‘online’ while attending to other tasks.”

Nelson Cowan, a University of Missouri cognitive scientist, says, “If you can’t hold as many items in mind, it may affect your ability to carry out complex procedures because the goals and the procedures themselves compete with items you are trying to remember.” In other words, not only do you have to remember all this stuff, you have to remember why you’re remembering!

Working Memory and Your ADHD Kid

“Finish your homework, wash up for dinner, and then come help me set the table.”  While multi-step, this is a clear, straightforward instruction. The problem is, that when you give it to a child with ADHD, he could have a difficult time remembering. You may experience this every morning. Your kid can’t remember each step he needs to complete between the time his head leaves the pillow and he gets on the bus. 

The good news is that people with ADHD do have good memories. Good long-term memories. Most report having adequate to exceptional recall – again, that’s why we can recall what we wore on our first date 20 years ago (give or take a decade!), but not where we just put our keys. It’s the same with kids.

So, they need some sort of system or structure to help them accommodate for deficits in their working memories.

Some ideas:

  • Checklists. If your kid has difficulty getting ready in the morning, list each step. This works for any age and can be adapted as your child grows.
  • To-do lists. Don’t list 50 things that would be nice to do! List 5 that have to get done so you don’t overwhelm your child – or set him up for failure.
  • Signal when something important is coming. “I want you to remember this.” It is also critical to make sure you really have his attention before you start speaking. He won’t remember if he isn’t paying attention!
  • Minimize distractions while doing homework and reading – or listening to your directions!
  • Use alarms, texts, and messages as external reminders.
  • Create a song or a mnemonic to help your child remember steps of a task or facts. In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue, ROYGBIV, I before E except after C – still remember those from school, don’t you? Because they work!

Studies show that training (using these systems and structures and building capacity) improves working memory – and that’s not all. It can increase your child’s range of cognitive abilities and IQ score.

Working memory is critical to our children’s ability to succeed in school and achieve a great quality of life. Our brains have a lot of “plasticity,” and deficits in the executive function do not doom us to a lifetime of forgetfulness – though we may need a lifetime of systems and structures to support our working memory!


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