Ask the Experts

“Working Memory vs. Short-Term Memory: What’s the Difference?”

“Working memory challenges are part of having ADHD. They don’t cause ADHD; they come with ADHD.”

String tired around finger, selective focus, soft focus vintage tone

Q: “Is working memory the same as short-term memory?”

There are three different types of memory:

  • working memory
  • short-term memory
  • long-term memory

While there’s some debate in the field about this, it’s generally held that short-term memory is super quick: It stores information briefly. Working memory is related to short-term memory, but it lasts slightly longer and is involved in the manipulation of information.

If someone tells you something and you write it down, it might not matter that your short-term memory is faulty because you don’t have to hold on to that memory beyond documenting it. Working memory deficits become problematic if someone tells you something, and you need to hold on to the memory and do something with it but can’t.

When things are flagged as emotionally important, they transfer down the memory line and are converted into long-term memories. This is why emotions and working memory are so intricately related. Short-term, immediate memory for simple tasks gets processed first, information that is more complex and demanding goes into working memory, and, if it’s tagged with emotional importance or special relevance, it ends in long-term memory. It’s a very complicated process.

[Self-Test: Do You Have a Working Memory Deficit?]

People with ADHD often struggle with working memory. They may not be as efficient with their working memory as they are with their verbal comprehension or spatial thinking, for example. It’s really important to understand that working memory challenges, along with processing speed issues, can be a natural part of having ADHD. They don’t cause ADHD; they come with it.

How to Improve Working Memory

Repetition can improve working memory. It even helps to pair an action or movement with a word or phrase. I once had a client who needed to learn Spanish, so he created a special movement for each word to help him remember it.

If you’re learning lines for a play, improve retention by reading and practicing the lines right before you go to bed and first thing when you wake up.

How to Improve a Child’s Working Memory

If you are giving instructions to a child with ADHD with a working memory deficit, use the rule of three:

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. State the direction.
  3. Have the child repeat the direction back to you twice.

The first time the direction gets repeated ensures that the child heard the instruction correctly. The second repetition sends the direction down the memory line because it is held in the working memory before being restated and then it moves along to long-term memory.

[Read: How to Help Children with Working Memory Deficits]

When your child or teen says “I have a bad memory,” reframe their view of their memory. Describe it as the search engine of their brain whose wires need some tweaking. Those adjustments come in the form of reminders, alerts, and alarms. Normalize forgetfulness as something that happens to all people and share your tools for recalling tasks. Be playful: Create fun acronyms or zany associations to jog the memory circuitry.

Working Memory vs. Short-Term Memory: Next Steps


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