Working Memory / ADHD

ADHD / Working memory

There seems to be considerable focus on working memory which is not surprising since it underpins children’s learning, especially in relation to those with any degree of SEND.


  • What is working memory and how does it differ from other types of memory i.e. auditory short term memory?
Working memory is often called memory in action and its importance to learning cannot be exaggerated. It enables a child to follow directions, relate to previous knowledge, and sustain their attention throughout their tasks. It has special relevance in Maths and English.
Difficulties in learning arise when pupils with a poor working memory cannot meet the demands of learning situations. As the curriculum increases in difficulty more demands are made on the working memory thus it becomes overloaded resulting in breakdown.


  • When do we use working memory?

We use working memory when remembering a telephone number. PIN number, web address, vehicle registration, spoken directions such as ‘go straight over the roundabout take the second left and the building is on the right opposite the school’.
It has been described as a memory post it note – the ability to manipulate information in the presence of distraction, doing something else at the same and stored, if for only for a brief time. It varies in capacity, dependent on the material and the type of information stored.
Often it is confused with auditory memory. Whereas working memory requires holding information in mind and manipulating that information, auditory memory is the storing of information without needing to do anything with it apart from repeat it, if required.


  • Difficulties in the classroom
Phonics is a problem for children with weak auditory memory. Often they have difficulty understanding what words mean, and can show a delayed grasp of language. Phonics requires working memory as children need to remember word sounds, piece them together to form words,
remember the word sound as a whole. Maths, especially mental arithmetic, places as heavy demand on working memory. It is necessary to store the digits in the memory, recall the appropriate rules that apply to the sum, work out the answer and remember it.


  • Further difficulties in the classroom would be:
  • Inability to follow directions. Frequently pupils can remember the first and last parts of a direction but fail to remember the middle part.
  • Difficulty in remembering a story apart from the beginning and end.
  • Comprehension difficulties.
  • Pupil can be highly distractible and inattentive due to working memory overload resulting in pupil ‘giving up’.

Another feature which should be considered is the impact of background noise, since information stored in the memory is ‘best preserved in silence and strongly disrupted by hearing speech that is unrelated’ Gathercole & Alloway 2008. This has implications for classroom acoustics, an important point in the education of all children


  • Strategies to help working memory in the classroom:
  • Do not give long instructions i.e. not ‘When you have finished your maths work, get your PE kit and go to the hall’ but ‘after maths, it’s PE in the hall’.
  • Chunk information – break the text down to smaller parts to ease retention of facts
  • Repeat information.
  • Encourage rehearsal of information although this is a technique mainly used for retaining words/sentences for auditory memory.
  • Encourage note taking and ‘drawing’. Often children will provide the LSA/teacher with a sentence but forget what they have just said. They should be encouraged to draw a rough sketch of what they intended to say to act as a memory aid.
  • Simplify sentence provided by the pupil, if necessary.
  • Use visual aids – key words, examples of maths strategies.
  • Differentiate the curriculum to take into account the individual’s learning needs.