Updated: Oct 3
James enters a room and then forgets what he wanted. He starts eating dinner, gets distracted midway by a text, and forgets he was eating. These behaviors are common among children with ADHD. Here's what you, as a parent, need to know.
James heads up the stairs each morning. James tries to put on his socks and shoes, but he can't find them. Sometimes James forgets he took his shoes off by the tub the night before. Sometimes James doesn't think to look in the shoe bin where his father has put them away for him. Sometimes, on rare occasions, James finds his shoes only to realize he forgot to bring up his socks. "Magic" is how James's mother thinks of the days when James heads up the stairs, socks in hand, and knows where to find his shoes.
Sound familiar? James isn't to blame. It's a working memory issue.
Working memory is a part of our greater executive functioning, or the system that allows us to control our thoughts, emotions, and actions to achieve greater goals. Specifically, it is a cold executive function. It is not based on “warm” emotions but rather on “cold” or purely cognitive thought.
Children with ADHD have difficulties with working memory. It’s hard for them to temporarily hold and manipulate information in their minds to carry out tasks. While a neurotypical child may be able to hold 4-5 functions or tasks in their working memory, a child with ADHD in the same circumstances may only be able to fit 2-3. And shoes or socks may not be it!
You can't “fix” an impaired working memory, but you can help alleviate the overload.
[5 fixes] Working memory magic
Colorful signs - Signs are great for remembering daily tasks. After watching my daughter forget her lunch one too many times in our house, I drew a big colorful sign for the front door –"Did you take your lunch?" She hasn't forgotten it since! We also have a "towel sign" to prevent forgetfulness before entering the shower. If your child doesn't read yet, you can draw one with pictures.
Ritual & routine - Daily and weekly routines help compensate for working memory loss by embedding the chain of items your child needs to recall in their brain. For example, if hockey practice starts at 5:30 pm, create an afternoon routine with your child. 4:00, eat a healthy snack, or you’ll be hungry. 4:45, change clothes and gather equipment. 5:00 pm, we must be out the door, or we will be late. This leaves little room for improvising or forgetfulness.
Lists & stickies - Lists help your child track a task as they go. Packing a school bag? Write out on a sticky what items must go in daily, and have your child check them off as they go. Even if they detour to the kitchen mid-way, they'll know where they left off. Prepping for an overnight trip? Organizing a pool bag? Create a list together, and then let your child run solo, checking off the items as they pack them.
"The box" - Dedicated boxes are great for organizing weekly sporting and activity supplies. Little league on Sundays? Create a box with your child's baseball glove, baseball, and a reminder (or picture) to pack a water bottle. Then each week, let them get the items out for practice. Help them remember to return the items to the box when done so it's there waiting for them next week.
Apps & timers - Apps work well for teenage kids and timers for younger ones. Instead of utilizing the working memory room in the brain, the app or timer provides an external reminder. In our house, I've used timers to remind a child there are ten minutes of screen time left till homework begins or that they need to unload the dishwasher in five minutes. My children much prefer it to being nagged, and so do I!
Working memory is part of our cold executive functioning. It’s the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information in our minds to carry out tasks.
Children with ADHD have more limited working memory. This means they can hold fewer thoughts or ideas in their head at the same time.
Rituals, lists, and signs are all great workarounds for storing information that may otherwise not fit into your child's working memory.
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