The neurological differences in people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) make it hard for them to pay attention. Children don’t seem to listen, they miss instructions, and they can’t get organized. And that’s just the start of the daily problems they face as they struggle to focus.
But there’s another issue that underlies inattention: children (and adults) with ADHD have memory problems or, more specifically, trouble with working memory. When we talk with parents at THINK Neurology for Kids, they’re aware of inattention issues with their children, but few have heard about the association between ADHD and working memory.
Studies show that children with ADHD have a significant deficit in working memory compared to their typically developing peers. Learning about what it means to have poor working memory is the key to understanding many of your child’s challenges.
Let’s talk about working memory
Your brain relies on several types of memory and each one has a specific purpose. Working memory has the job of temporarily storing and manipulating several pieces of information so it can be used to guide decisions and actions.
The information that enters your working memory doesn’t stay there long, typically only for seconds. But the more you focus, the longer it stays.
Even when you have an exceptional working memory, its capacity is limited. Some experts believe the number of meaningful items you can hold in working memory at one time is around seven. Others believe that young adults can only hold three to five.
Working memory has three components:
This part of working memory focuses attention, controls the flow of information into the other two areas, and coordinates their activities. It also links working memory to long-term memory.
The phonological area takes in the information you hear.
Visual information is stored here. The sketchpad and the phonological loop work separately, so you can increase your memory by engaging both. For example, you may remember a phone number better if you write it down and say it out loud.
Role of working memory in daily life
Your child needs a good working memory to hold multiple pieces of information in their head, organize, and then use the information to direct their activity or answer a question.
Here’s an example. Your child’s math teacher verbally asks them to add 10 plus 20 and then subtract five. It takes a healthy working memory to visualize the numbers and remember the sum of 10 and 20 so they can subtract five.
The challenge of a poor working memory is greater as the instructions get more complex. You may ask your child to turn off the TV, wash their hands, and set the table for dinner. Then they may wash their hands but return to watching their program instead of setting the table. They’re not being defiant; their brain just didn’t hold on to or process the instructions.
Working memory is the tool that lets your child:
- Pay attention
- Follow instructions
- Plan actions
- Organize activities
- Reach a goal
- Schedule their time
- Stay on track
- See how things fit together
For children with ADHD, an underdeveloped working memory influences many of the most difficult aspects of their daily life, from struggling to track assignments and misplacing materials to failing to finish chores.
Challenges of a poor working memory
When working memory isn’t actually working, your child may have a hard time learning the alphabet. They can’t focus on short instructions like “go brush your teeth,” so forget about stringing together a series of requests. In teens, poor working memory may affect their ability to perform complex tasks like driving a car or socializing.
Unfortunately, when working memory fails, children seem unmotivated or oppositional. It takes a lot of mental effort and energy to make up for a faulty working memory, and then they often fail to perform despite their hard work. It’s no surprise that their frustration comes out in emotional outbursts and behavioral problems.
Working memory can improve
The good news is that we can help children with ADHD improve their working memory. As training puts them through exercises requiring them to retain information longer, the capacity of their working memory expands.
If you have questions about ADHD, inattention, and working memory, or you’d like to schedule a consultation, call THINK Neurology for Kids or book an appointment online at our offices in The Woodlands, Katy, and Cypress, Texas.