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Working Memory Problems Associated with Attention Deficit Disorder

In this article we will explore some of the recent relevant research in the areas of working memory, learning disabilities and ADHD. These studies point out the importance of discovering any comorbid conditions that may exist with ADHD to adequately choose the most advantageous instructional strategies that will most benefit each child.

ADHD children are frequently diagnosed with language impairments (LI). Both of these conditions are identified with poor academic achievement and ineffective comprehension. Children with LI have difficulties with structural language, logic, and narrative dialogue (Cohen & Vallance 2000). Deficits in expressive language ability and auditory verbal memory lend to reduced practical competence among children with LI because response time, lexical selection, cohesion, and topic maintenance are all negatively impacted (Cohen & Vallance 2000).

Reading disabilities (RD) frequently exist in children with ADHD. RD begins with difficulties decoding words. This affects the child’s reading comprehension and fluency. Decoding skills are connected to phonological processing (the ability to understand and recall the use of sounds) (Kuder, 2008). These poor phonological skills create difficulty identifying sounds within words and the words themselves (Kuder, 2008). Studies show that reading comprehension relies heavily on working memory (Swanson & O’Connor, 2009; Martinussen & Tannock, 2006).  Working memory is responsible for holding recently perceived information and making connections with previous knowledge allowing for understanding of what has been read.

Learning and language acquisition both rely on the importance of attention, short-term, and working memory (Kuder, 2008; Lerner & Kline, 2006).  Attention allows the child to discriminate information in short-term memory and to exchange with and retrieve information from long-term memory (Kuder, 2008). Through this process, new information can be connected to previously stored knowledge. Working memory receives information from the senses, processes the information, and sends it to short-term memory. Working memory has been the focus of recent research on children with reading disabilities (RD), language impairments (LI) and ADHD (Martinussen & Tannock, 2006;  Swanson, Kehler, & Jerman, 2010).

In attention deficits there is an impaired ability to screen out unnecessary information and attend to what is most important at a certain time. A child with attention deficits, perceives many sensory stimuli competing for their attention and is unable to easily focus adequately on the primary learning task. Research shows that this deficit is in selective attention, much more than in sustained attention (Weiler, Bernstein, Bellinger, & Waber, 2002). Most of the research has centered on children with clinical levels of inattention, but without clinical levels of hyperactivity/impulsivity (ADHD-predominantly inattentive type (ADHD-IA). Selective attention relates to the ability to perform a task while experiencing competing non-relevant stimuli (Weiler, et al., 2002). Children with selective attention difficulties processed information more slowly than the control group particularly when there was increased cognitive pressure and several component operations. Interestingly however, the same children did not experience comprehensive information processing deficits, nor did they experience problems with attention on tasks that demanded sustained attention (Weiler, et al., 2002).  They showed no delay in performing tasks of motor response and basic decision making either (Weiler, et al., 2002). This research suggests that ADHD-IA children are able to allocate information to working memory in the presence of fewer distractions and or an elevated level of motivational interest. Parents and teachers observe this when these children are engaged in tasks which hold sustained interest.

ADHD children with comorbid LI have greater difficulty with working memory measures that those without LI in both verbal and nonverbal working memory (Cohen et al., 2000). One study found that even when nonverbal data is involved working memory is language based (Cohen et al., 2000). Difficulties processing phonological information in working memory, pragmatics, and narrative discourse skills are all related to LI. The weakest pragmatic skills are connected with having three comorbid conditions: ADHD, LI and RD. LI is associated with narrative discourse even if no RD is present. Further, impairments in auditory and verbal memory are predictors of poor pragmatic competence (Gomez & Condon, 1999).

Children with ADHD have moderate working memory deficits when compared to control populations; however, these deficits are more highly connected with comorbid disabilities, rather than the ADHD per se (Martinussen & Tannock, 2006). Studies also show that central auditory processing deficits are more likely to be associated with learning disabilities than ADHD (Gomex & Condon, 1999; Kataria, Hall, Wong, Keys, 1992). However since more than fifty percent of ADHD children have comorbid learning disabilities and LI these studies explain some of the reasons outcomes have remained less than optimal for these typically bright children.

MaryEllen Jirak MS. Ed is a long time educator with a master degree in Special Education. She is also the author of The Gift of ADD Secrets For Transforming Liabilities Into Possibilities and a new book called Cracking The ADD Code: Why Outcomes Haven’t changed and How They Can , plus a number of other eBooks on Attention Deficit Disorder.

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