The Connection Between Working Memory and ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

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
  • Draw on your existing knowledge to locate your measuring cups and spoons
  • Select the correctly sized bowl
  • Determine how long to mix the ingredients

If your working memory breaks down at any point in this process, 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.

Poor working memory contributes to problems with focus and hyperactivity. However, there are things parents can do to help their children strengthen the working memory., Memory games, card game, active reading, and chunking information into smaller segments are a few examples of activities that can help.


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.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.