General Memory

Is your child forgetful?

Is your child:

  • Always saying, “Oh, I forgot!”
  • Showing up a day late and a dollar short?
  • Missing assignments and late work?
  • Often losing his planner?
  • Forgetting the book she needs to do her math assignment?
  • Always saying, ‘I forgot my homework!’ ‘I can’t find my jacket!’ ‘Where is my science project?’ and ‘I was sure I left it right here!’
  • Failing to follow directions?
  • Missing deadlines and due dates?
  • Seeming to be in need of a personal assistant?


Some children seem to forget everything. You may catch yourself saying, “you would lose your head too if it wasn’t attached!”

These kids leave homework assignments, projects, clothing, and lunch boxes at school despite frequent reminders to bring things home. The ‘lost and found’ seems to have their name on it.

Missing assignments and late work have become the norm. The child’s teacher may keep saying, “He could do so much better if he would just apply himself!”

She may show up at school on the day of a big field trip without her sack lunch or permission slip. He may have a backpack that looks like a science project.

You may find a crumpled up picture day order form, past due homework assignments, and lunch money in the bottom of your child’s locker.

You might have tried sticky notes, planners, digital devices, reminders, and email alerts. Despite lots of support, some children continue to miss assignments and remain vastly unorganized.

Your child may be falling behind in school or may be in trouble a lot. You may feel like, ‘how will my teenager ever be self-sufficient?’ Generally, this forgetfulness will boil over into other areas of life.

Your child may struggle with the morning routine. He may fail to brush his teeth, throwing on wrinkled jeans, skipping breakfast and getting out the door 10 minutes late. She may be the one at soccer practice who is dressed out for an away game when the game is to be at home.

You may have endless arguments over your child’s ‘taking responsibility,’ ‘getting organized’ and ‘remembering things.’


The underlying problem here could be general memory.

Memory can be defined as, “the mental ability to store and retrieve words, facts, procedures, skills, concepts, and experiences [6].

Children with poor memory skills may have issues with one or more of the following skills: organization, planning, working memory, processing speed, or attention.

Organization is a part of executive functioning.

Organization refers to the ability to keep track of a number of different things and to remain organized, not forgetting to complete a task.

Planning is also a part of executive functioning. Planning refers to the ability to plan out a series and sequence of moves one step at a time.

For example, a child might think, “I need to get my math homework, my math book, my planner, and then make sure to write down my assignments. I need to put those all into my backpack.”

Working memory refers to the ability to hold things in memory for a short amount of time, perhaps 20 to 30 seconds, and to act on that information.

For example, a child with good working memory can hold a list of things to do in his head long enough to write them down or gather the materials needed to complete the tasks.

Processing speed is related to the speed at which an individual can take in and process information.

A person with slow processing speed may have difficulty when information is provided quickly or when an environment is busy with a lot of extra information that the individual is also having to process, such as in a crowded classroom.

Attention means the ability to focus and to sustain one’s attention long enough to complete a task or activity without becoming distracted. Sustained

Attention is the ability to focus on something even if the task is very boring or to focus in the absence of immediate reinforcement. Getting material organized and collected may be hard to attend to, while building a Lego Tower or playing a video game is easy.


The first thing to do is likely to request a consult with the school. If your child is in upper elementary, middle school, or high school, remembering assignments is very important.

It can be a useful strategy to sit down with teachers and to talk about how to support your child in using a planner. A home-school communication notebook or daily planner book that is checked by the teacher may be a good approach.

If assignments and grades are posted on-line, get in the habit of checking the assignment websites with your child each night.

You might follow a gradual release approach. First, “I do,” then, “we do,” and finally, “you do.” Let the teachers know that you will pull your support gradually as your child gains skills.

It is not helpful for adults to say, “He should be able to do this by now.” Clearly, he is not. Yes, your child is ultimately responsible, but for now, this process is a ‘team game.’

However, many kids will get the hang of it with support. Do not get discouraged. Provide support and structure.

Collaborative goal setting is a powerful strategy [9, 10, 11]. Set specific deadlines and objectives with a reward at the end. If your child wants a new scooter, for example, maybe he can set goals with you for earning it. Perhaps, if he gets all his grades up to a B or better, you will help him purchase one.

It may be helpful to look at the household organization system. Make things clear, concise and easy to follow. Create charts and posters with reminders and sequences. Make a specific place to put shoes and backpacks the night before school.

Find immediate ways to positively reinforce your child for following the system, and have a plan in place for forgotten assignments. A behavior therapist can help to create really effective systems to improve organization.

Sometimes disorganized children also have disorganized parents, and so it can be very helpful if a therapist can help to shoulder some of the burden of getting your child organized.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Shifting or Sustaining Attention (Focusing): difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges following directions or remembering the task at hand.
  • Perseverating: difficulties changing tasks due to excessive interest or focus on a certain topic. This difficulty is common in autism and can impact a child’s ability to follow directions and tendency to become distracted.
  • Executive Functions (Organizing): difficulties related to planning, sequencing, organizing information and carrying out a task in a timely manner
  • Depression or Emotion Regulation: difficulty managing feelings can lead to being forgetful or distracted due to underlying feelings of sadness, depression, or extremes of emotion
  • Processing Speed: difficulties with fluency in cognitive processing. A child may not hear or encode information if he or she is processing very slowly. It may be important to provide verbal and visual reminders and to repeat directions as otherwise he or she may seem to forget.


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): challenges sustaining attention, distractibility, impulsivity, and at times slow processing speed that can all impact remembering and carrying out a task [2, 3, 4]
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): challenges with restricted interests or behaviors; hyper focus; challenges with shifting attention and sometimes with sustaining attention; executive functioning challenges are common in autism [1]
  • ODD or Conduct Disorder (Behavior Disorders): challenges with behavioral disorders that are created by accidental reinforcement of behaviors; it’s reinforcing to “forget” homework because you don’t have to do it
  • Major Depression: challenges with depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable; leads to apathy, checked-out behavior and mood; may forget things easily
  • Learning Disabilities (Educationally Identified Disabilities): challenges with learning, such as dysgraphia, dyslexia, or dyscalculia. Processing challenges lead to performance in one or more academic areas that is below grade level and is not consistent with other areas of strength


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist.
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and to help with planning and organization
  • Executive Functioning Coach/ Tutoring: to help your child with any academic weaknesses and/or work completion problems, planning and organization; nice to take this role off the parent
  • School Psychologist: to determine learning needs based on the child’s neuropsychological profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan or RTI is warranted to help your child
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment that would consider possible symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context
  • Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for inattention, impulsivity; stimulant medication for ADHD is effective in a high percentage of children with focus and impulsivity challenges. Some psychiatrists also provide psychotherapy

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • BASC-3, Clinical Interview, Brief Projective Measures: emotional assessment (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: assessment of cognitive processing to help determine what interventions may work best (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • WIAT-III/WJ-IV: academic assessments in components of reading, writing, math, and oral language can help us understand learning processes and see the impact of any executive functioning, processing speed or attention deficits on learning (Neuropsychological, Psychological, or School Psychological evaluation)
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST, TOVA: executive function assessment may help to determine the skills and resources a child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and attend (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • ADOS-2: assessment of social and executive functioning that may indicate an autism diagnosis should be considered


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.


[3] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.


[4] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, second edition. Amazon:

[5] Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.


[6] Lewis, PhD, Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). Brainstars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.

[7] Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play.


[8] Higbee, Kenneth. (2008) Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it (A book about Mneumonics)

[9] Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance.

[10] Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.


[11] Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie (2008). Late, lost and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.


For kids:

Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn.

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)


Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it. Amazon:


McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices. Amazon:

Image Credit:
Description: Adorable little girl with hand on her forehead
Image ID: #667091438 (iStock)
By: asiseeit
Previously Licensed on: February 21, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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