Working Memory – The Key to Unlocking Potential in Learners with ADHD

Working memory relates to the information we can pay attention to and manipulate at the moment (while working). For example, we use working memory when we dial a new phone number. 

Working memory is limited to just 3-4 pieces of information in the neurotypical adult. That’s not very much. Most neurotypical adults do not have the working memory capacity to meet the expectations of our modern world, so we use one or more working memory accommodations (hacks/strategies) to function daily. 

We all have cool tricks for accommodating our faulty executive functioning, most centered around externalizing the information. Post It’s, your planner, reminders, Ical, notifications, grocery lists, etc. When we externalize information, we free up space in our working memory to facilitate other cognitive functions. Some days we need more strategies than others—fatigue, stress, and illness tax working memory capacity. 

Individuals with ADHD have chronic difficulty with working memory. “Why did I come into this room?” ” Wait, what was I doing”? Stress, fatigue, and illness will tax their limited supply of limited resources and can lead to a challenging dysfunctional day. 

Supporting working memory for all learners in the classroom aligns with well-known evidence-based educational best practices. 

Cognitive Load Theory

The Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller 1988) is a well-known instructional design theory that relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold simultaneously. 

Cognitive Load Theory builds upon the widely accepted model of human information processing (Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin, 1968). Humans process and learn information using sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory. 

All day long, we are bombarded with sensory information. In the “typical” nervous system, our sensory memory filters out most of this information but keeps an impression of essential items long enough for them to pass into working memory. The brain then processes and categorizes that information and moves it into long-term memory, where it is stored in knowledge structures called “schemas.”

Schemas organize information according to how you use it. We have schemas for learning concepts (i.e., the alphabet) and behaviors(i.e., unpacking our belongings). The more we practice these schemas, the more effortless these behaviors become. Automated schemas do not rely on working memory. 

We use our working memory all day long to do any and every task that is not ” automated .” Learning new tasks and information places a heavy load on working memory. Cognitive Load Theory demonstrates that instructional methods are most effective when designed to fit within the known limits of working memory.

Sweller uses the term “cognitive load” to refer to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Cognitive load theory identifies three different “cognitive load” types that impact learning (Sweller 2010). All three loads are present, cumulative, and rely on the same limited working memory resources. 

Intrinsic cognitive load relates to the inherent difficulty of the subject matter, the complexity of the material/activity, and the prior knowledge of the learner. (Sweller 1994, 2010). 

Extraneous cognitive load is the load present in the learning context that is not necessary for learning. It can wreak havoc on learners. 

Germaine Cognitive load is a load of cognitive resources required to process, connect and organize new information for long-term memory. 

Intellect is Not Enough

Students with ADHD and working memory difficulties will need more support as tasks get longer, become more complex, have unfamiliar content, or demand more cognitive processing. These students may have the intellectual ability to handle the content but lack the working memory capacity to learn, function independently, or demonstrate knowledge. 

The importance of this phenomenon can not be understated. 

How often have you heard a teacher say, ” He is so bright, smartest in the class, he just needs to apply himself,” or” She has the potential to do much better.” The red flag of working memory difficulties. Even if the student has strong intellectual potential, problems in working memory will impact the learners’ ability to process and store information into long-term memory schemas. 

Faulty working memory is the reason behind all that “wasted potential.” 

Supporting Working Memory in the Classroom

Interventions for working memory are mostly compensatory. Using the evidence base of Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller 1988), therapists can support the caregiver (teachers/parents) and the student in various ways. 

Ensure Intrinsic Load is Correct for the Learner 

When a “bright” student can not accomplish classroom expectations that appear to be within their intellectual skills set, evaluate the cognitive load demands of classroom expectations or learning activities for length, familiarity, and additional processing demands/ challenges. 

  • Reduce the amount of the material presented at one time ( multiple-step tasks require greater working memory capacity) 
  • Break down instructions and steps
  • Break the information into smaller instructional units 
  • Reduce the volume of work (quality vs. quantity)
  • Reduce the number of exercises; focus on the most important ones. 
  • Reword instructions, using short sentences 
  • Break tasks into smaller instructional units
  • Chunk and group information
  • Replace some practice problems with worked examples 

Reduce Extraneous Working Memory Load

The extraneous cognitive load of classroom activities is often an overlooked cause of performance difficulty. This load is not directly related to the learning goal but is required to participate. I often refer to this as ” friction.” Unnecessary steps, physical distance, temptation, materials, distractions, and formatting are possible extraneous loads. 

For example, a student with poor working memory takes a short answer test in social studies to demonstrate their knowledge about George Washington. The student is well prepared for this test, motivated to do well, loves social studies, and knows the correct answers to all the questions but fails the test. 

” What a shame, If they only applied themselves.” 

The short answer testing format requires words to be spelled correctly, handwriting to be legible, and sentences to be complete with punctuation and capitals. In addition, it requires the learner to retrieve the information and formulate it into clear responses, on paper, with a writing implement. 

In this example, the student writes incomplete sentences that are hardly reflective of their knowledge base, omits key vocabulary words because of unknown spelling, and convolutes facts they knew a day prior as they squeeze their writing onto tiny lines. 

Despite the student knowing all the facts about George Washington to ace this test quickly, the extraneous load of the test format overwhelms working memory, and the student cannot demonstrate their knowledge.

We can restructure complex tasks whenever a child has to perform a challenging mental activity while simultaneously holding on to information. For example, fill-in-the-blank tests with a word bank for spelling or a multiple choice test would have significantly reduced extraneous cognitive load upon the learner. 

We can reduce the extraneous cognitive load in classroom expectations in various ways. 

  • Restructuring complex tasks by simplifying the amount of mental processing required. 
  • Reduce elements that can interfere with working memory
  • Use only one method/mode of presentation (visual or auditory) for easily understood concepts to eliminate redundancy. 
  • Have related information integrated into one area instead of being spread out in multiple locations (i.e., near point vs. far point copy), which causes learners to work harder to make connections between material
  • Eliminate graphic and learning supports that may overload more experienced learners with unnecessary information 
  • Use verbal narration to describe graphics instead of text so that learners do not get overloaded by trying to process multiple visual inputs simultaneously. 
  • Use cognitive offloading strategies. 

Cognitive Offloading 

Cognitive offloading reduces the cognitive demands of a task by transferring some of the processing requirements of a task onto the environment. This reduces the demands placed on working memory and releases cognitive capacity to help with successful task completion (Berry et al., 2016). 

We cognitive offload all day long. We don’t call it that. Grocery lists, to-do lists, and calendars are methods of cognitive offloads. Doctors’ offices give you a written next appointment card and then contact you repeatedly to confirm your appointment. Providing one or many examples below may unlock that potential we hear so much about. 

  • Visual supports of multiplication tables
  • Visual supports of the correct spelling of commonly used words
  • Provide a visual checklist of the instructions you outline for them to refer back to during independent work. 
  • Provide written or picture instructions. 
  • Provide visual clues for problem-solving. 
  • Provide memory aids and visual supports 
  • Provide graphic organizers 
  • Allow the student to use reference tools (posters, dictionaries, lists of procedures).
  • Externalize ” rules” with visual supports. 

Provide Physical Representations of Reminders at the Point of Performance

Working memory is taxed when we do not have a physical representation of the information needed to refer to while performing a task. Anchor charts, visual schedules, and check-off lists for tasks students “should” already know in a routine can be discreet and respectful working memory support. 

  • The ” Unpack Routine” can be numbered and laminated to a desk in pictures or words. 
  • A bright sticker with a reminder ” Push in your chair” is visible when the chair is out. 
  • Labeled organizers for materials 
  • A pencil clip mounted on the desk.
  • Pencil sharpening rules/procedures on the pencil sharper. 
  • A Stop sign on the door to remind the student to sign out. 
  • A “Do I Have What I need for Homework?” sign that everyone fist pumps as they leave the room.

The sky is the limit; I even made one for a toilet lid ( closing the toilet lid prevents the puppy from drinking toilet water). 

Develop the Child’s Use of Strategies for Supporting Memory

Working memory deficits are chronic for students with ADHD. Elementary school teachers and therapists can promote the design, selection, and use of memory aids for a student with ADHD. With scaffolded practice, children can learn to master memory strategies that will improve independent learning and help to level their lifetime academic playing field. 

  • Use mnemonics 
  • Help them discover the right planner or app for writing down assignments
  • Model using your own working memory aids
  • Point out methods they are already using and name them 

Supporting Working Memory Helps All 

We do not know what is going on in our student’s lives before they enter our classrooms. This generation of “neurotypical children” is overexposed, over-scheduled, and sleep-deprived for their developmental age. Stress, fatigue, and illness are everyday occurrences. 

Supporting poor working memory difficulty (whether it be transient or chronic) removes an unnecessary barrier to learning. Understanding cognitive load, we can create a learning environment that eliminates distraction and helps learners focus on learning material. In addition, modeling working memory strategies will build executive functioning for all learners and may save the day for your students with ADHD. While only some students need this support more than others, they will all need it sometimes

Externalizing as much of the daily classroom routine to decrease demands on working memory will empower all learners, reduce stress, and free up valuable time and energy for you and your learners. 

Additional Resources 

For more information and evidence-based research on working memory see the research links below . 

Overloaded working memory is often the cause of decreased legibility in written expression. Read about ADHD and Written expression here.  

Learn more about Executive Functions Here

Download a free Executive Function Strategy List Here


  • Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory: Recent theoretical advances. In J. L. Plass, R. Moreno, & R. Brünken (Eds.), Cognitive load theory (pp. 29–47). Cambridge University Press.
  • Berry, E.D.J., Allen, R.J., Mon-Williams, M. and Waterman, A.H. (2019), Cognitive Offloading: Structuring the Environment to Improve Children’s Working Memory Task Performance. Cogn Sci, 43: e12770.
  • Paas F, van Merriënboer JJG. Cognitive-Load Theory: Methods to Manage Working Memory Load in the Learning of Complex Tasks. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2020;29(4):394-398. doi:10.1177/0963721420922183
  • Artino, A.R.,.J. (2008). Cognitive Load Theory and the Role of Learner Experience: An Abbreviated Review for Educational Practitioners. AACE Review (formerly AACE Journal), 16(4), 425-439. Waynesville, NC USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved September 5, 2022 from
  • Gathercole, S., & Alloway, T. (2007). Understanding working memory: a classroom guide. The University of York. Retrieved February 11, 2013,

2 responses to “Working Memory – The Key to Unlocking Potential in Learners with ADHD”

  1. […] Provide visual models of the directions to refer back to support working memory  […]

  2. […] the availability of working memory by decreasing extraneous cognitive load (see this post), and decreasing choices and […]

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