Executive Functions

“You Would Forget Your Head…”

If your child forgets to hand in completed homework, do chores, or bring home permission slips, try these mom-tested strategies for improving working memory in kids with ADHD.

String tied around a finger belonging to an ADHD person as a memory reminder
String tied around a finger belonging to an ADHD person as a memory reminder

Have you ever helped your child with homework only to have her forget to turn it in? Are you baffled when your child can spell words correctly at home, but gets the same words wrong on the spelling test?

These experiences are common to children with ADHD. Having a weak working memory, in addition to being easily distracted, leads to many challenges in retaining information. But you can improve memory with these ADHD-friendly tricks:

1. Get emotional.

Positive emotions set the stage for new learning. When you engage your child’s emotions, he is more likely to remember information.

Try introducing a topic by sharing a story with a character or circumstance that your student can relate to. When your child is struggling to memorize math facts, remind him of a story or movie or video he read or watched in which a dog or a boy finds his way back home against tough odds. If you can’t think of a pertinent story, help a student recall a time when he stuck with a hard task and completed it. Those good feelings can motivate and engage a student as he learns new material.

2. Get creative.

Novelty helps a child with ADHD remember information. Introduce a topic with a brief demonstration, using real objects or hands-on activities to attract the student’s attention. Write words on a blank piece of paper, so they can be seen through the bubbles on bubble wrap. Give the student 30 seconds to read as many words as she can, popping each bubble as she goes.

Other creative learning strategies include inserting a pencil through an orange to show how the earth revolves and rotates at the same time, or letting a child watch a YouTube video about a skateboarding accident before teaching anatomy or first aid.

[Read: 15 Memory Exercises for Forgetful Kids]

3. Use sensory cues.

Studies show that the scent of peppermint enhances alertness and facilitates learning. Have your child suck on peppermints while studying. If your school doesn’t allow candy in the classroom, put a few drops of essential oil on a cotton ball. Your child can pull it out and take a whiff when her concentration needs a boost.

4. Create mnemonics.

These memory aids and strategies improve memorization. Here are my favorites:

  • Acronyms

    Use the first letter of each word in a sequence to improve your child’s recall: Use COW to remember the western coastal states of California, Oregon, and Washington.

  • Acrostics

    Help a child remember by using phrases starting with the first letter of each item to be recalled. In science you can use the phrase Kings Play Chess On Finely Ground Sand to recall Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. For the algebraic order of operations in math, use Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction). In music, to remember the treble clef line notes from bottom to top, use Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF). For geography, Never Eat Soggy Waffles (North, East, South, West) will sharpen a child’s map skills. Acrostics let you know that you have remembered all of the items on a list.

  • Number-rhyme mnemonics.

    Select objects that rhyme with the numbers 1-10. Example: 1 = sun, 2 = shoe, 3 = tree, and so on. To learn new information, a student visualizes the number rhyme interacting with the items to memorize. Example: The child needs to go to the bedroom and bring back three things: a pencil, a sweatshirt, and a library book. A student can picture a pencil catching fire from the sun, pulling a sweatshirt out of a shoe, and climbing a tree to retrieve a library book.

[Free Checklist: Common Executive Function Challenges — and Solutions]

5. Get moving.

Allowing the student to move while learning is sometimes all it takes to increase motivation and retention of material. Physical activity reduces stress and increases energy, and it can help information cross the midline of the brain, so that it is shared by both brain hemispheres. This increases the likelihood that information will shift from short- to long-term memory.

A child can stay active and improve recall by playing with a fidget toy. Manipulating materials with her hands extends a child’s attention span and focus.

The ADHD brain loves variety, brevity, and novelty. After you teach the strategies above to your child, have her come up with her own. While these memory tips and tricks support weak working memory from executive dysfunction and improve recall, there are always new ones to try. Work with your child to find them.

[Free Guide: Activities and Sports for Kids with ADHD]