7 Strategies for improving your child’s working memory

Your child is doing homework – work that should have been completed in the classroom, but wasn’t done because he forgot the teacher’s instruction; when he saw the other kids writing, he realised that he missed something and asked a classmate what needed to be done. By the time he got writing, they had moved to another task, leaving him with unfinished work to take home. 

Parents of ADHD-diagnosed children are all too familiar with this scenario and countless others like this, all undoubtedly the result of poor working memory. Poor working memory is a hallmark of ADHD’s effect on executive function, the set of processes that allow you to manage yourself and your resources to achieve a goal. 

What is working memory? 

We have three types of memory: long-term memory, short-term memory and working memory. Generally, long-term memory is the vast amount of information we save during our life, while short term memory is information that we store temporarily and is the “memory” component of working memory. Working memory is the small amount of information we retain when manipulating information to complete a task. It determines the rate and level of learning and is connected to the cognitive processing of information, including reading comprehension, language acquisition, reasoning, and problem-solving. For instance, it’s what allows children to hold thoughts in memory long enough to express them, verbally or in writing. 

Working memory and ADHD 

For children with ADHD in particular, studies have shown that working memory underlies learning skills such as maths and reading, science, written language, oral language, and following directions. 

Dr Liz Matheis, writing for ADDitude, expounds that working memory affects language processing in a few ways: 

Syntax is the set of rules of oral and written grammar.

“Some children may have difficulty using or comprehending the structure of sentences – written and spoken.” As a result, the child has difficulty expressing his needs and his wants, which is important in the classroom and in peer situations.

Semantics are meanings of words.

“Children who struggle with semantics have difficulty comprehending written and spoken language, poor vocabulary, problems finding words and challenges using context to help with reading comprehension,” she explained.

Pragmatics are known as the social use of language to convey thoughts and humour.

It is not uncommon for children with ADHD to struggle with social skills due to a weak ability to understand the nuances of conversation, and when others are giving the cue to stop,” she illustrated.

Therefore, to accommodate working memory deficits, it’s important for parents to help their ADHD-diagnosed kids develop practical, long-lasting coping strategies that they can take well into adulthood.

 

Strategies to improve your child’s working memory

1. Medication

Medication provides a substantial improvement in ADHD cognitive symptoms, though experts advise that working memory coping strategies be applied alongside pharmacological treatment. 

2. Know your child's limits

Ever given instructions but your child has only done two of the four things required of him? He may have reached the limits of his working memory. You need to determine your child’s capacity for holding information and give directions accordingly. 

3. Use repetition

Repetition goes a long way in improving working memory. If your child is memorising chunks of information or learning a new language, let your child memorise right before going to bed and when they wake up first thing in the morning. 

When giving instructions, US-based ADHD expert, Dr Sharon Saline, suggests using the rule of three: 

1. Make eye contact. 

2. State the direction. 

3. Have your child repeat the direction back to you twice. 

Furthermore, when your child complains of a bad memory, she suggests reframing their view of their memory by normalising forgetfulness as something that happens to everyone. She says that you can describe it as the search engine of their brain whose wires need some tweaking and those adjustments come in the form of reminders, alerts, and alarms. 

4. Create routines

The more habitual a task becomes, the less your child has to rely on working memory to function. 

Here are a few tips for creating routines with your child: 

• Be consistent – find a pattern that works, and stick with it. This applies to both daily and study routines. 

• Be patient – new routines take time to build into effective habits, so don’t expect your child to get it immediately. 

• Use verbal cues – Verbal cues can include saying the order of the task before your child does it, e.g. “Step 1, hang up my school clothes” or make up a song or poem to remember important information. 

• Use visual cues – e.g. write out the order of the steps for a math problem, put the dental floss next to the toothpaste. 

• Praise your child’s efforts and keep offering reminders until the routine sticks. 

5. Break down tasks

Whether your child is studying for exam, writing an essay, or even doing household chores, help your child break down the task into manageable parts. This will reduce the amount of overwhelm they may have about the task and improve productivity. 

Take, for instance, a multi-step assignment: 

• Break it into smaller assignments with short-term deadlines
• Check in before starting the next step, until completion 

6. Use tools to assist

To take the pressure off working memory, get your child into the habit of writing down information right away, even if he is confident that he’ll remember it later. Encourage them to write down anything they want to remember later, e.g. homework, assignments, special dates, ideas, and so forth. 

This can be saved in the form of: 

• To-do lists, organisers, post-its, whiteboards, journals, a reminder on their phone, a homework planner 

• Digital calendars, such as Google Calendar, are great for creating lists and setting up reminders. 

Help your child find the tools that work for him and integrate these tools into his routine. 

7. Computerised Cognitive Training

Another potential therapeutic option for ADHD is computerised cognitive training (CCT) programs. They provide training in cognitive tasks such as working memory, attention and inhibitory control, and can take the format of computer games, apps and memory games. Researchers are still looking into the long-term effectiveness of these strategies. 

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