Executive Functions

“I Remembered Not to Forget!”

If complex instructions or information fly easily out of your child’s mind, use these in-school and at-home tips to reduce the nagging and improve his working memory.

Graded quiz of ADHD student
Graded quiz of ADHD student

Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind while performing complex tasks. A young child is able to execute simple tasks — sharpen his pencil when asked — while one in middle school can remember the expectations of multiple teachers. Many kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have weak working memory because distraction prevents them from taking in the information they have to remember. Parents and teachers can help students with ADHD develop strategies for training their working memory, remembering more, and — most importantly — routinely using the strategies they came up with.

Improve Working Memory at School

Put homework assignments in writing. Write each assignment on the blackboard in the same place every day, so that students know where to find it. Kids with ADHD may not be listening or paying attention when you give them oral instructions — and you can’t rely on them to always remember instructions.

Find out what they heard. Have students with weak working memory repeat assignment instructions and clarify any parts that they may have forgotten.

[Self-Test: Does Your Child Have a Working Memory Deficit?]

Make time at the end of class for students to write down homework in their assignment books. Make sure the kids with ADHD are doing what you’ve asked.

Make eye contact with a child before giving him a classroom assignment.

Keep homework assignments on the school website up-to-date. Parents of kids with ADHD depend on this information to make sure their kids know what to do.

Speak slowly and provide information in small units. Given too much information at once, a child with weak working memory quickly loses track. She may still be working through the first few minutes of the lesson after you’ve moved on.

[Fun Memory Games to Play at Home]

Make lectures interactive. To get kids with weak working memory to remember something important, structure the lecture to include responses from them. For instance, when teaching a math lesson, you might encourage students to volunteer to share what they learned about fractions, division, or whatever material was covered that day. Repeating a key point will help anchor it in their memories.

Have a routine for handing in homework assignments. Some teachers ask students to place their completed work on their desk as soon as they sit down for class — and then check off in their grade books that the homework was done. Another idea: Make handing in homework the “ticket to get out of class” at the end of the day. Stand by the door and collect it as the students leave. As you can imagine, kids will comply when the alternative is having to stay in school one minute longer.

Talk with students about what to do if they forget something. Assign — or ask students to select — a study buddy they can talk with if they’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to do for homework or can’t remember what to do in class.

Use an analog clock during lessons to help your students with time management. They will be able to keep track of how much time has passed and how much remains.

[9 Apps and Tools That Build Better Retention]

Call close attention to due dates. Post them, refer to them frequently, and remind parents and students in notes home, newsletters, or school voicemail.

Ask students to design their own “tickler systems” — ways to remind themselves of things they must remember (permission slips, lunch money, gym clothes). This could lead to a class discussion, to give students a chance to share the strategies that work for them.

Improve Working Memory at Home

Assign a designated place for your child to put important stuff — house keys, wallet, sports equipment. As soon as he gets home from school, make sure he puts those things where they belong. A reward for following through — or a penalty for not — will reinforce the habit of staying organized.

Create a reminder checklist to make sure your child has everything she needs to bring to school. In the beginning, watch as she goes through the checklist, to make sure she’s putting every item in her backpack. Do not repeat what’s on the list, but ask her to tell you (this helps to transfer the information from your working memory to hers). Have your child use the checklist when she finishes her homework the night before, to avoid rushing around in the morning.

Make, and use, to-do lists yourself, so that your child sees this is a lifelong coping strategy. Life is too complicated to expect kids to commit everything to memory!

Brainstorm with your child about ways he can remember important things. Can he write it on the back of his hand, program his smartphone to remind him, ask friends with better memories to prompt him?

Homework Routines to Improve Working Memory

Get permission from teachers for your child to e-mail her assignments. This is easy for kids who do homework on the computer. Some families scan the homework on a scanner and e-mail it to the teacher. This tip won’t strengthen working memory, but it’s a good coping strategy for students with weak executive function.

Reward your child for remembering. E-mail teachers once a week to make sure all the homework was handed in. Give your child five points for all homework turned in, four points for missing only one assignment, and no points if he misses more than one. Create a menu of rewards the child can earn. Allot more points for more complex assignments.

Give your child a homework routine to follow. Homework is a complex series of subtasks that must be completed in sequential order. It requires plenty of working memory. Teach your child that, in order to complete a homework assignment, he must:

  • Know what the assignment is
  • Record the assignment
  • Bring the required materials home
  • Do the homework
  • Return the homework to his bookbag or backpack
  • Bring the completed homework to school.

Morning Routines to Improve Working Memory

Have your child tape-record the steps of his morning routine. Listening to his own voice on playback creates less tension than your nagging him about what to do. If he forgets a step, he can just rewind the tape to figure out what he missed.

Rehearse with your child what you expect him to remember right before the situation. For example, if he needs to ask the teacher for a study guide or one-on-one help, prep him by asking, “So, what do you need to say to your teacher when you go up to her desk?”

Use digital reminders. With children in middle school, use cell phones, text messages, or instant messages to remind them of things they have to do.

Keep external distractions to a minimum — turn off the TV or turn down the volume if you want your child’s full attention when you’re saying something important.

Follow through. Children with weak working memory will indicate that they did something — put their homework in their backpack, say — when you ask, but will proceed to forget. Until the child gets used to taking action when prompted, check on him to make sure he did what he told you.

Updated on April 4, 2018

2 Related Links

  1. To remember to put completed homework into my backpack, the backpack lived in two places.
    1 – beside my desk at school
    2 – beside my desk at home
    This routine also helped me to: not lose the backpack, not lose the homework, make finding all stuff easier, and it reduced the “having to remember” task.

    I also put my school blazer over the back of my desk chair when at home. Same trick – pens were in the blazer pocket at school and at home. No need to remember.
    These tricks also worked at university. and they still work today.

  2. I think that for complex assignments (eg writing and creative projects) we need to focus on several steps in between these two:
    “Do the homework
    Return the homework to his bookbag or backpack”

    We need to be sure the student knows to read the instructions, plan to complete each required component, monitor that the components are included in the assignment, and in the end Fe-check that all components are completed or edited to completion.

    Otherwise I notice my child will happily dig in to all the fun stuff, letting her own imagination and creativity drive her work. This doesn’t always (rarely, in fact) result in a completed product worthy of a passing grade.

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