Learning Challenges

15 Memory Exercises for Forgetful Kids

Weak working memory impairs a child’s ability to follow multi-step directions, tap into old information, or quickly recall lessons. These 15 exercises and strategies can help, particularly if your child has ADHD.

Planner and sticky notes used for memory exercises
Planner belonging to student with ADHD with sticky notes and pen on top of it

You tell your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities to finish his snack and start his homework, only to find him a few minutes later shooting baskets in the driveway. You assume that he got distracted or, worse, chose to ignore you. In truth, it might be his memory that’s to blame — and forgetfulness can cause school problems for children with ADHD and learning disabilities.

Many children with ADHD have trouble with their working memory — the ability to keep information in mind so it’s available for use. Some also have a hard time with retrieval, the process of reclaiming information that has been stored away.

Of course, our kids also struggle with attention, which is a prerequisite for memory. Both are essential for learning and for academic success. Luckily, understanding how memory works — combined with the following memory exercises — can be a big help.

Keeping Info “Online”

Working memory allows a student to follow directions, to remember a question while raising her hand to answer it, and to hold on to new information she needs to apply to her work.

In reading, working memory aids our comprehension, making it possible to organize and summarize the text and connect it with what we already know. In writing, it lets us juggle the thoughts we want to get on paper while keeping the big picture in mind. In math, working memory lets us keep track of numbers and operations throughout the steps of a problem.

The stronger a child’s working memory — the longer she can retain and work with new material — the better her chance of remembering it, for the next hour, the next day, or longer.

Gaining Access to the Files

Does it sometimes seem that your child no longer knows something he once had down pat? His problem may be that of retrieving information — pulling it out of long-term memory. Without the ability to build on material learned in the past — vocabulary words, math facts, the sequence of events in the Civil War — learning new material is frustrating and slow.

Children with learning disorders may have trouble accessing particular types of information. A child with dyslexia may be slow to remember words he’s read before, making it necessary for him to sound them out each time. A child with a writing disorder may forget the rules of grammar and syntax; a student with an arithmetic deficit may draw a blank on the multiplication tables. If your child has ADHD and learning disabilities, both may affect memory in ways that interfere with learning.

Mastering Memory

Helping your child hone her memory can go a long way toward improving her performance at school.

Provide a place to study that’s free of noise, interruptions, and tempting distractions, like the television or the toy box. The material your child needs to learn should be the most interesting thing around.

Let your child know when he’s about to hear information he needs to retain. You can say, “I want you to remember this,” or “Put on your thinking cap.”

Provide a count of the details to be remembered. You might say, “There are 10 new vocabulary words. Five are verbs related to transportation, and five are adjectives that describe speed.”

Provide a framework for information. Help your child see how new material is relevant to her life or related to things she already knows. In math, for instance, create word problems to show how subtraction can help her determine how much candy her allowance can buy. If a science lesson focuses on how animals adapt to their environment, remind her that whales have blubber to protect them from the cold, and chameleons change color to blend in with their surroundings.

Aim for comprehension before memorization. If your child needs to remember arithmetic facts, let him first manipulate blocks or buttons to represent the numbers involved, and draw the equation in pictures. If he needs to understand evaporation, have him measure the level of water in a glass over the course of several days.

Teach your child to engage her senses. If she’s learning to read, for example, have her trace letters with her finger while saying the sounds and looking at the symbols. A student viewing a map can describe it verbally and point to features of interest; students in a foreign language class can be taught to visualize the things they’re learning to say.

Practice an activity to engrave it in memory. Instead of expecting your child to remember what he’s told, do a run-through. Before the first day of class, for instance, have him practice copying homework assignments into a notebook. If an important test is coming up, create a mock exam for him to practice on.

Use humor. Encourage your child to associate the material with a funny or outlandish image. If “skittish” is one of his vocabulary words, have him imagine he’s watching a school skit and sees that some of his classmates are nervous on stage.

Help your child create chants, rhymes, and raps to remember spelling rules, multiplication tables, and history facts. Rhythm makes information memorable.

Use acronyms and crazy phrases to remember a list of items. The acronym HOMES is often used to remember the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. And how could you forget the names of the planets (and their relative distances from the sun) once you’ve learned that “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”?

Keep “cheat sheets” on hand for reference. If the teacher gives her permission, help your child put together pages of grammar guidelines, math formulas, and foreign-language conjugation rules that he can use in class when needed.

Teach your child to highlight or underline important facts as he reads, and to re-read the underlined material.

Review test material early and often. Have your child focus on small amounts at a time, and periodically review what she’s already mastered. Above all, don’t cram.

Here’s one approach that puts your child in charge: Copy material onto index cards, with a question on one side and the answer on the other. Your child reads each question and tries to answer it. If she can’t, she reads the information on the other side, and places the card at the back of the deck. If she can, the card goes into the “I know it” pile. By starting with just a few cards, she’ll cycle through them fast enough that she’ll soon remember some, then all, of each answer.

Provide reminders to keep your child organized and ready to learn. Post a checklist by the front door — and have her keep a copy in her locker — to remind her of which day to bring sneakers and when her science project is due. Teach her to use a daily planner or electronic calendar, and help her develop a routine for checking it.

Explore memory techniques your child already uses. Does he form pictures in his mind as he reads, or whisper the text under his breath? Encourage him to build on whatever seems to work.

Be creative in using these memory strategies to help your child learn new information and retain it over time. With encouragement and practice, you may find him using them on his own.

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