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In the world of Executive Function, working memory is a standout skill. Consider it your brain’s Post-it note! This cognitive skill allows us to hold and manipulate information temporarily – crucial for tasks like following instructions, solving problems, or even keeping track of a conversation. In everyday life, working memory is the backstage hero ensuring we complete tasks effectively and efficiently. From planning a meal while shopping for groceries to recalling key points during a meeting – working memory is silently and powerfully shaping our daily interactions and decisions.
As you're likely aware, ADHD is not solely challenges with attention; it impacts all Executive Functions, and working memory is a big one. Individuals with ADHD that struggle with working memory may experience difficulty in holding onto information long enough to use it. For example, they might forget the second half of a set of instructions while carrying out the first half. Working memory challenges are a significant component of ADHD, affecting life at school, work, and everything in between. Addressing these challenges is key to managing ADHD effectively and improving overall Executive Functioning. That’s why this article dives into practical knowledge as well as helpful strategies specifically to teach you how to improve working memory.
Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for temporarily holding and processing information. It's your brain's ability to hold bits of information for a short period of time, allowing you to manipulate this information for various tasks and processes in the future. Working memory has a limited capacity where information is held for a short duration unless actively rehearsed or used. Often confused with short-term memory, which is mainly about storage, working memory involves the manipulation and handling of information.
As a key Executive Function skill, working memory interacts closely with other EF skills to manage thoughts, actions, and emotions. Here are a few ways working memory works with other Executive Functions: When organizing a project, you use working memory to keep track of all the pieces you’re juggling and plan out how and when to execute them. Working memory aids in starting tasks by keeping the goals and steps in mind. Working memory helps regulate emotions by allowing you to reflect on your feelings and consider different responses rather than reacting impulsively.
The capacity of working memory is different for everyone. These differences can be attributed to a combination of genetic, developmental, and environmental factors. Working memory typically improves during childhood and adolescence, peaking in early adulthood, and sometimes gradually declining with age. Your working memory is not a "one size fits all" skill, by any means; it's influenced by genetics, brain development, life experiences, health, and lifestyle choices.
So, by now you can probably guess that working memory plays a pivotal role in our daily lives, functioning like a mental workspace that helps us carry out a wide range of everyday tasks. Whether you're calculating a tip at a restaurant or figuring out the best route to avoid traffic, working memory allows you to hold and manipulate information in your head to come to a solution. Daily decisions, from small ones like choosing what to wear to more significant ones like financial planning, involve working memory. It helps you weigh options, consider the pros and cons, and remember your priorities and goals.
Working memory is incredibly important for students, as it is central to the learning process and academic performance. As students read, working memory helps them hold onto earlier parts of the text while integrating new information. When taking notes, students need to listen, process information, and write it down simultaneously. As students are constantly introduced to new information and concepts, working memory allows them to hold onto this new information long enough to understand it and relate it to what they already know. For students, it's not just about the ability to remember information temporarily; it's about actively processing this information, which is a fundamental part of the learning process.
Poor working memory can manifest in various ways in daily life. A poor working memory might look like having trouble grasping new concepts or skills because you can't hold enough information in your mind to connect the new material with what you already know, regularly forgetting where you've put things like keys, wallet, or phone because you weren't fully attentive or couldn't remember the action, or getting easily sidetracked by external stimuli or unrelated thoughts, making it hard to complete tasks efficiently. For students, it may look like leaving books or other materials at school, performing poorly on tests, or forgetting to do assignments.
ADHD can significantly impact working memory. Individuals with ADHD often find it difficult to keep information in their working memory for extended periods. This might manifest as forgetting instructions midway through a task, getting lost in conversations, or misplacing items frequently. Since working memory is essential for juggling multiple pieces of information or tasks at once, people with ADHD may struggle with multitasking. They might find it hard to switch between tasks or manage several responsibilities simultaneously. ADHD affects the ability to regulate attention. Since ADHD and working memory are closely linked, difficulties in maintaining focus can further impair working memory function.
It's important to note that ADHD affects individuals differently, and not everyone with ADHD will experience all of these challenges. Although individuals with ADHD or Executive Function challenges can have poor working memory, there are strategies to improve it!
This is a fun activity our coaches use to demonstrate divided attention. We use this to help students understand that our attention can be divided, and when that happens, we miss key information.
Here's what the card game looks like, it can be found and played, here:
Chunking is taking large strings of numbers, letters, or words and grouping them into smaller components so it is more easily remembered. This information is stored in our working memory, but it is possible if the chunks are used enough they can transition into long-term memory. Have your student think of important information, such as phone numbers, their student ID number, or even the names of their classmates. When trying to remember their 10-digit student ID number, instead of remembering the arbitrary number, 1892557913, encourage them to chunk this into 189 255 7913. Now, they only have to remember 3 pieces of information instead of 10!
Repeating information to yourself helps to memorize a small list of items (about 5-7), especially when paired with a physical gesture such as ticking off your fingers. Repeating information moves it to short-term memory, which is good for more immediate recall such as the trip to the grocery store or to a locker to pack up at the end of the day. This strategy can support students who forget to bring all their items to school with them each day. Have them verbally rehearse the short list of items they will need for school every night before bed. In doing this, your student will be able to recall these items every morning before leaving the house, eliminating the stress on both you and them during the day.
Mnemonics are things like word associations, acronyms, or drawing a picture to facilitate a connection in the brain. The key to mnemonics is that it has to be created by the person who needs to remember the information. One classic example is the acronym "PEMDAS," used in mathematics. PEMDAS stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. This mnemonic helps students remember the order of operations in solving math problems. A fun phrase or mnemonic to remember PEMDAS is: "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally." This phrase turns the abstract concept into something more concrete and memorable, making it easier for students to recall the order of operations during math exercises.
This is a story-telling visual strategy to support memorizing hard-to-remember details and provide a sensory-rich memory to recall. Students are better able to recall details through supporting multiple sensory-based memories.
Here's a video on using the Magna Carta Strategy:
Remember, working memory allows us to hold and manipulate information temporarily – crucial for tasks like following instructions, solving problems, or even keeping track of a conversation. Working memory challenges can arise for an array of reasons and can affect people of any age. The good news is that working memory can certainly be improved, and the strategies for improvement can actually be pretty fun!
While these are just a few strategies our coaches use to assist with working memory challenges, it can be difficult to implement new strategies on your own. An Executive Function coach may be the missing support to hold you or your child accountable and introduce tools unique to their individual needs... and personality.
Justice Abbott is a Content Marketing Associate for Beyond BookSmart, contributing to the marketing department’s efforts to promote executive function skills as a pathway to confidence and personal success. Prior to joining the Beyond BookSmart team, Justice was as a Marketing Assistant for Germono Advertising Company, working closely with small businesses to redirect their social media marketing efforts and increase brand awareness. She’s earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English from Towson University, with a writing concentration.
Executive function coaching for students online throughout the U.S. and internationally.
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