Executive Functions

How to Help Children with Working Memory Deficits

Your child is not willfully tuning you out. He has a working memory deficit. Here’s how you can help.

Boy with ADHD does not want to pay attention in school
Boy with ADHD does not want to pay attention in school

What is working memory? And why is language processing so important to our children and adolescents with ADHD?

Working memory allows children to hold thoughts in memory long enough to express them, in writing or verbally. It also allows children to listen to directions and follow through with them in the classroom. Language processing alongside ADHD makes it difficult for our children to sit down long enough to think up ideas, organize them, and write them down in a way that makes sense.

Working memory is part of executive function and is often referred to as the mental workspace where information is stored and used for a short time (i.e., a few seconds). It’s that place where you store a phone number just long enough to dial it.

If a child is not retaining the information needed to solve a problem, that child is unable to complete the task and probably feels pretty awful about it. For example, if a second grade teacher gives instructions for completing a worksheet by stating: take out your scissors, cut out parts 1 and 2, but not 3, and glue the parts in order, and your child has only heard only the first instruction, he has now missed a great deal of information that leaves him feeling ashamed or angry or both.

If your child asks his peer for help, chances are good he’s scolded for talking when he should be working. So your child talks back to the teacher and gets scolded again, but he really doesn’t know what to do. Ten minutes have passed, his peers are starting to finish up and your child only has his scissors out so he just starts cutting. The teacher comes around and tells your child that he is going to have to finish this worksheet for homework. Your child gets angry, throws down his scissors, and walks out of the classroom. This is how behavioral patterns start and persist… and it all started because of that darn, weak working memory.

What is language processing? Several parts of language are often difficult for children with ADHD to make sense of and use. For example, 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. The result: a child who has difficulty expressing his needs, his wants, his preferences, which is essential in the classroom and in peer situations.

Semantics are the word meanings that influence oral and written grammar. 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.

Pragmatics are known as the social use of language to convey our thoughts and humor. It is not uncommon for our 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, etc.

Strategies and Accommodations

Here are a few strategies and accommodations to help improve working memory in children with ADHD so that they can be successful and feel good about themselves in the classroom:

1. Break down tasks into several discrete steps, and check in before starting the next step

2. Offer breaks during tasks that require sustained attention

3. Present small chunks of new information that contain many details and allow for consolidation of information before presenting more new information

4. Encourage use of a graphic organizer prior to writing tasks so that student is able to think through his ideas out loud and in writing

5. Allow student to discuss his understanding of a new concept as this helps him to make connections

6. Encourage student to read out loud (written work or books) to maintain attention and improve comprehension

7. Edit essays by reading out loud

8. Use dictation software programs in order to prepare essays or research projects

9. This will serve to improve and maintain flow of ideas

10. Provide audible books or books on tape

11. Color code school materials (e.g., red = Math)

12. Break down a multi-step assignment into smaller assignments with short-term deadlines