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ADHD Working Memory Issues

‘He seems to be constantly day-dreaming. And when he’s not day-dreaming, he’s being distracted by something. He never listens!’

This is a common complaint from school teachers as they attempt to explain how a normally bright child in their classroom behaves during a typical school day. The child’s poor attention may be caused by working memory problems.

Is working memory a better predictor of academic success than IQ?

Recent research studies suggest it is because memory is closely linked to learning. Forgetfulness is a characteristic that makes students look like they’re lazy or they lack motivation, or they simply just don’t care but the reality is, it is a classic characteristic of poor executive function skills. Delayed executive function skills often accompany a diagnosis of ADHD and or LD. Dr. Russell Barkley states that these students are 3 to 5 years delayed in the development of their executive skills. Academic tasks influenced by executive functions can include organizing materials, getting started on school work, remembering homework and text books, memorizing facts, writing essays, solving complex math problems, being on time, controlling emotions and planning for the future. This has a huge negative impact on learning and behaviour when you consider a 14 year old beginning secondary school student may have the executive skills similar to an average 11 year old in grade 6! These students require much more direct supervision and monitoring than is normally provided for their age group.

Remembering is a far more complex task than we often realize. In order to successfully remember, students must:

  • pay attention
  • ignore distracting interruptions
  • store information
  • find information
  • quickly retrieve it
  • act upon the information

Working memory is only one portion of the executive skills but a highly critical piece for academic success regardless of IQ potential. It is a student’s ability to hear the teacher’s instruction, go into their long term memory and retrieve what they already know about the subject, connect the new information to the old, keep out distractions from the environment and then manipulate the problem and respond appropriately. Working memory can only hold a certain amount of information; when this is overloaded it is extremely difficult to ignore distractions. Imagine the ADHD student reading quietly to herself, struggling with mechanics of decoding the words, processing lengthy sentences, retrieving vocabulary meanings and applying appropriate meaning to the passage when the PA announces band practice — all of a sudden, she finds herself thinking of music and all memory of the reading has vanished!

Working memory is linked to reading comprehension and written expression as both are very complex processes. Working memory enables the processing and recording of information here and now. Long-term memory in turn is a theoretically unlimited memory store that holds and organizes everything we know and can do. Consequently, writing essays, drafting book reports or answering questions on tests or homework is often very challenging for these students. For example, when writing essays, students often have difficulty holding ideas in mind, acting upon and organizing ideas, quickly retrieving grammar, spelling and punctuation rules from long-term memory, manipulating all this information, remembering ideas to write down, organizing the material in a logical sequence, and then reviewing and correcting errors.

Abilities that are affected by poor working memory are:

  • remembering and following instructions
  • memorizing math facts and spelling words
  • performing mental computations
  • completing complex math problems such as algebra
  • remembering one part of an assignment while working on another portion
  • paraphrasing or summarizing
  • organizing and writing essays
  • learning from past behaviours
  • judging the passage of time accurately
  • examining or changing their own behaviour
  • preparing for the future

Ideas that may be helpful are

  • Create checklists and “to do’ lists (externalize memory)
  • Estimate and keep track of exactly how long tasks take to complete
  • Break long assignments into small chunks and assign time frames for completion
  • Use visual calendars (4 months at a view) to track long term projects and assignments
  • Write the due date on the top of every assignment
  • Ask for written directions
  • Organize the study space so all materials are easily accessible
  • Minimize distracting clutter
  • Schedule time to review and organize
  • Prepare for upcoming changes in routine and activities
  • Keep to routines as much as possible – automatic behaviours do not over load memory

When you understand these unseen disabilities, you are in a position of strength and have compassion to support and assist your child.

Remember “Your child’s experiences in school will have a lasting impact upon their future. School success is very therapeutic!”

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