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Why Kids with ADHD Can Be So Forgetful

Working memory deficits are common in ADHD. These strategies can help.

Key points

  • Working memory is critical for focus and following instructions.
  • Due to deficits in executive functioning, children with ADHD often struggle with working memory.
  • Some simple strategies can help improve working memory function in children with ADHD.

Why does my ADHD son think his memory is perfect? Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know what he is forgetting.

I’ll admit when it comes to my son, I have an obsession with neon-colored sticky notes. I have been known to put those colorful reminders everywhere—on my son’s school folders, his desk, even the bathroom mirror—reminding him to put his laundry into the hamper, turn in his schoolwork, and practice piano. I thought maybe his ADHD brain would pay attention to the bright neon colors.

Nope. My son’s working memory simply doesn’t work. So, what is working memory and what does it have to do with ADHD?

Working Memory Deficits in ADHD

A key component to why your ADHD child may seem distracted and forgetful is working memory, our most immediate form of memory. Due to executive functioning deficits, ADHD brains tend to struggle with working memory, which helps you to keep information in your brain until you need to use it.

For example, you use your working memory when you solve a math problem. Consider the problem 4 + 5 + 10. First, you calculate 4 + 5 = 9—then, using working memory to keep the number 9 in your brain, add 10 to get 9 + 10 = 19. Working memory is also important when you are following a series of steps, like a recipe, so you know what steps were already completed.

With regard to ADHD, working memory is important for helping kids to pay attention and follow instructions—all the things teachers and parents like them to do. But children with ADHD can forget what they were supposed to be paying attention to since the important information held in their working memory can easily be replaced by other stimuli, like a favorite activity.

See if this scenario sounds familiar. Your ADHD child is engrossed in some activity of his/her choosing, like a video game, and you give him/her a 15-minute warning to get ready for soccer practice. When you check on your child 15 minutes later, you find he/she has not moved, and you are now going to be late to practice.

Kids with ADHD have trouble stopping behaviors that are inappropriate at the time (playing a computer game) to focus on appropriate behaviors (getting ready for soccer practice), since they can easily forget what they are supposed to be doing.

Strategies to Improve Working Memory

My son, now a freshman in college, was diagnosed with ADHD in third grade. Over the years, several strategies proved useful for helping his working memory:

  • Breaking down big tasks into very specific parts so his brain doesn’t get overwhelmed, and he has an easier time remembering what needs to be done.
  • In middle school, my son had a special folder for homework assignments that needed to be turned in to the teacher the following day. I would like to say that he diligently checked the folder at the end of the school day to make sure it was empty, but I try to live in the real world of ADHD. Even so, this strategy did help to decrease the number of his missing and late assignments since he only had to remember to check one folder.
  • Having a place for important items like his backpack, trumpet, and car keys helped to streamline weekday mornings. As a result, my son was more likely to be on time to school since he didn’t have to spend already hectic mornings searching for and trying to remember where he put things.
  • Making sure I have my son’s full attention before I ask him to do something is critical if I want him to remember it. If my son is focusing on an activity he likes to do, what I am asking will go in one ear and out the other.
  • My son finally decided to use a paper planner in high school after several years of my gentle nudging—OK, nagging—explaining that if he wrote things down, and saw them, his working memory wouldn’t have to work so hard to remember. His planner was always filled with lots of cool doodles of rocket ships but never any homework assignments. He has gone through dozens of planners, electronic and traditional paper ones, and whiteboard calendars. Typical of his novelty-seeking ADHD brain, the planners were used for a week or two then abandoned (maybe I can pile them up to use as a plant stand). When my son started using a planner in high school, writing down everything including school assignments and other activities, he eventually gave in and agreed that it was indeed helpful for keeping him on top of assignments in school and planning out his time efficiently.

Maybe it’s time to put away the neon-colored sticky notes. And if anyone needs a planner, I will be happy to oblige.