The Connection Between Working Memory and ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Poor working memory is perhaps the biggest factor driving attention problems and hyperactivity in the classroom—and one of many traits associated with ADHD. Working memory enables us to temporarily hold new information in our minds and use this information, in combination with our existing knowledge and skills, to guide our behavior or solve an immediate problem.  

Example of a Working Memory Breakdown 

While definitions of working memory can be helpful, this abstract concept is typically easier to understand through an example. So, imagine that you are verbally asked to make 1/3 of a recipe that combines 2 cups of flour with 3 tablespoons of water, 1 packet of yeast, and 1 teaspoon of salt. You would use your working memory to temporarily remember the ingredients and their quantities, apply your math skills to mentally calculate the revised quantities, and draw on your existing knowledge to locate your measuring cups and spoons, select the correct size bowl, and determine how long the ingredients should be mixed. If your working memory breaks down at any point in this process, then you will struggle to complete the task.  

People with ADHD Often Have Weaker Working Memory 

Studies of children and adults with ADHD have identified weaknesses in multiple domains of working memory. On average, individuals with ADHD have a smaller working memory storage capacity than their non-ADHD peers. So, in our cooking example, they may be able to remember only three ingredients at a time vs. four or five ingredients. They also have weaknesses in their ability to manipulate the information stored in working memory (e.g., complete mental math calculations) and retrieve and apply existing knowledge to new information.  

When we view working memory through this lens, it’s easy to see how these weaknesses contribute to ADHD-related difficulties like following multi-step instructions, completing assignments accurately, and sticking with tasks until they are completed. What may be a bit less obvious are the ways in which working memory contributes to problems with focus and hyperactivity. 

How Individuals with ADHD Respond to Situations Involving Working Memory 

To understand these connections, studies conducted in laboratory settings have used computer-based working memory tasks and automated visual and motion trackers to evaluate how individuals with and without ADHD respond to situations that place demands on working memory. From these studies, we have learned that all individuals, regardless of whether they have ADHD, naturally stop paying attention and ‘zone out’ when the demands of a situation are greater than what their working memory can handle. What makes individuals with ADHD unique is how easily and often the demands of a task or situation exceed their lower working memory threshold. Since their working memory is easily overwhelmed, they lose focus much more frequently than their peers without ADHD.  

When it comes to hyperactivity, as working memory tasks become more demanding and begin to exceed their working memory threshold, individuals with ADHD start moving their bodies by fidgeting or getting in and out of their seats. These movements improve working memory performance in the moment for those with ADHD, which may explain in part why fidgeting and having difficulty staying seated are so common for students with ADHD in the classroom. 

When it comes to helping students with ADHD overcome working memory challenges, both medication and behavioral interventions can be effective. Stimulant medications significantly improve working memory for many students with ADHD. Behavioral strategies can help minimize the impact of working memory weaknesses on academic performance and classroom behavior. Examples of such strategies include following routines to help turn multi-step tasks into daily habits, using checklists throughout the day, engaging in hands-on learning activities, and repeating instructions multiple times. Computer-based cognitive training programs that are designed to improve working memory in youth with ADHD are also available. Unfortunately, research has shown that these programs do not lead to meaningful improvements in working memory or ADHD symptoms under ‘real world’ conditions at school or at home, and are not recommended as a primary intervention for youth with ADHD.  

While working memory contributes to problems with focus and hyperactivity, there are things parents can do to help their children. Card games, active reading, and chunking information into smaller segments to name a few. Huntington can also help students of all ages develop their executive functioning skills, including working memory. This can have a positive impact on your student’s knowledge retention, classroom behavior, confidence and school performance. Call us at 1-800 CAN LEARN to hear more about how we help students with and without ADHD strengthen this important skill.  


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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