How to Help Your Child Improve Their Working Memory

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 23, 2022
5 min read

One of the challenges for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is limitations with their working memory, or their ability to hold on to information long enough to use it. Working memory also impacts long-term memory, or how our brain stores information for the future. Weak working memory can make it harder for your child to pay attention, focus, remember and follow instructions, learn, and more.

Many young kids have trouble with working memory. But children with ADHD may also have problems in other cognitive, or thinking, areas including executive function, which helps us plan, prioritize, and do tasks. Those deficits, combined with difficulties with working memory, can present challenges.

Over the past few years, many new apps, websites, and computer games have been created to help children with ADHD improve their brain function, including their working memory. While some research shows they can help, researchers and doctors say there is inconclusive evidence on whether these computerized programs help children when it comes to using and improving their working memory in everyday life.

But research has shown that medication and practicing training techniques and strategies can help your child boost their working memory.

While you’re helping your child improve their working memory, it’s also important to teach them strategies that they can use at home and school to remember things, complete tasks, and function every day.

Here are some ways to help your child improve their working memory, as well as coping strategies to help be successful at school and home.

Boost your child’s skills while having fun. Card games require your child to remember the rules, what cards they need, and what cards other players have used. Pick the game based on your kid’s current level of functioning.

Memory board games can also help your child practice holding on to information. Verbal license plate games are also great. Take turns reciting letters and numbers from license plates and repeating them back to each other. This can help them practice listening, remembering information, and using it to repeat back.

A good way to help your child remember what they learn is to have them teach you. To be able to teach something, a person must first hold on to the information and be able to use the information to guide others. Teachers often use this technique in the classroom by pairing students together to help each other.

So, when your child is learning or practicing a new skill and getting the hang of it, have them teach it to you. It can be anything from how to do a math problem to how to dribble a basketball. They will get to practice key working memory skills and build confidence along the way, too.

Have your child take notes, underline passages, and talk about what they are reading. These active reading skills can help them absorb and remember details – both in the short and long term.

As your child masters a new skill or becomes used to completing simple tasks, continue to add on to them. Studies have shown that children experience the most benefit with their working memory when they are challenged with new skills. Just be sure to increase demands slowly.

Saying instructions and information more than once as your child is learning helps them become familiar with the information, digest it, and retain it. Repetition will be needed as your child is maturing and building their working memory over time.

Pictures and lists can be very helpful for children with ADHD. You can use them in multiple ways, such as images to show the steps needed to complete a task or leave post-it notes around to remind them of tasks that need to be done.

If your child is struggling with remembering certain information – such as spelling of common words – posters or reference sheets can help them. If they forget tasks at home, create and laminate to-do lists with all the steps they need to complete.

When giving your child multistep directions or information, break it down into smaller parts. This helps make sure that you are not overloading their working memory and that they can digest one piece of information at a time.

For example, when asking your child to get ready in the morning, you could give them two tasks at a time, and only give the next step once they’ve completed the first two. Or, if your child is writing an essay, help them break the assignment down into different steps such as brainstorming, collecting data and facts, writing an outline, completing a first draft, and so on.

When your child is trying to do homework, learn a new task, or read, try to limit distractions, including noise and visuals like TVs and other screens.

One of the best ways to help children remember to complete tasks is to encourage behaviors to become habits. For example, you can have a morning routine that your child follows every day to make sure they are ready for school. You can also have their teacher create routines, such as having your child turn in their homework as soon as they enter the classroom.

Help your child remember tasks or steps by creating clever sayings (such as Roy G Biv to remember the colors of the rainbow) or songs to help them remember information.

Working memory is like a muscle – it takes time, consistency, and practice to make it stronger.

All children have different strengths and ways of learning, so try new things to find what works for your child. What works well for another child may not work as well for yours, and vice versa.

Encourage them to use to-do lists, planners, and notebooks to write down and store important information, so they don’t have to remember it all. Monitor your child’s progress and reactions to see what works best to help them.

Be patient: Improving working memory takes time. Don’t expect results overnight and be sure to celebrate your child’s small wins as this will motivate them to keep going.