Understanding the Mental Load on the Student

9 minute read

How to we create realistic expectations of how much information kids with ADHD can take in and manage? To understand mental overload for students with ADHD we first need to look inward and assess ourselves. Then we can relate our personal knowledge and experiences to helping the student find balance.

Mental Overload for adults

We have all had days that were just too much. Too much work, school, chores, errands, times we cleaned the kitchen, etc. You know what it feels like to be mentally overloaded. Not only did you perform and accomplish many tasks there were also sensory inputs like the smell of gasoline when you filled up your car, the sounds of the kids playing and/or arguing, the lights flickering in the kitchen, and the over-coldness of the air conditioning.

We all know how this feels. We all know our limit or capacity for how much we can handle in a day.

Why do we think kids should be any different? They are not.

Kids feel mentally overwhelmed too

Kids feel and absorb all of their own information and sensory inputs every single day. The process of getting through a school day plus extracurricular activities, homework, and chores, is a lot to manage. And for some kids with ADHD, autism, or sensory processing issues this daily list can feel even more overwhelming.

Parents, guardians, teachers, and caregivers need to become more self-aware of our own mental processes and capacities. Then we can be more understanding of each child’s needs and then provide them the support and guidance needed.

Allow me to explain how I think about mental load in terms of teacups. 

Teacups and Tasks

At one of my engineering jobs I had a wise friend, Sarah. She effortlessly explained ordinary aspects of working and family life to me with insightful descriptions and analogies. Sarah consciously absorbed every life experience and adeptly related its meaning to life overall. She made being at work fun.

Once I had my children I often shared my complaints of no sleep, loss of free (mental) time, and struggle to balance my responsibilities. Sarah understood and related this to teacups.

Imagine your capacity to deal with everyday parts of life is held within a teacup.

using a teacup to explain mental capacity for intellectual and emotional tasks

Utilizing the brainpower you have efficiently

Some people have small teacups and can only manage a small amount of tasks and stresses in the day. Other people have large teacups and can handle more in a day. “Julie,” she said, “you have a large teacup.”

This made me feel temporarily better. None of my daily tasks disappeared. But I felt a renewed sense of being up to the challenge of managing whatever came my way.

Not everyone has or needs to have a large teacup. I think we all need to make the assessment for ourselves. Then be aware of our limits each day. Remember what it feels like to accomplish the daily tasks without overflowing our teacup. And also be painfully aware of what an overflowing teacup feels like.

Once we have this self-awareness we are ready to move to the next step of being aware of other’s limitations.

Building awareness of how kids manage their mental load

We cannot increase someone’s capacity for daily mental tasks and environmental inputs. However, we can be in a position to not make this mental load worse. Let’s not pile on extra unnecessary things.

For example, a child has ADHD and is trying to do homework and go to soccer in the same afternoon. A parent suddenly asking them to clean their room might just push them over the edge, resulting in an overflowing teacup.

The child might have a big reaction and the adult could be surprised, not realizing that the child’s brain was already at capacity.

This is the perspective I carry with me throughout the day. I work to remain mindful of my kid’s environment: what they are being asked to do, how they are feeling, and how they seem to be managing their day.

In addition to researching about ADHD I am also curious about neurodiversity and seek information from writers and sources about what it is like to live with a variety of neurological frameworks. A pattern I saw repeated in social media posts from autistic people was the mention of “spoons.” This word occurred regularly enough that I knew it was simply not a coincidence and I researched more. I stumbled upon something called Spoon Theory.

Spoon Theory – my understanding

Spoon Theory was a term created by Christine Miserandino as a way to describe her day living with lupus, a chronic condition. Since then communities of people with autism have used the description to explain to others what it feels like to go through a day in their life.

I will describe my understanding of Spoon Theory here. Please go find other resources to add to your learning since I am not an expert on this topic.

The premise begins with you waking up and starting your day with a set number of spoons – this varies from person to person.

Credit to: https://musingsofanaspie.com/2014/10/15/conserving-spoons/

Physically getting out of bed and getting dressed uses two spoons from your drawer.

Eating breakfast might not take one spoon from your drawer but several. Each subtask of making breakfast (e.g., getting out the skillet, cracking and scrambling eggs, cooking eggs, making sure the eggs don’t overcook) might use multiple spoons.

Then you begin your work or school day. In your first meeting or class there is a large group of people and the talking is loud and grating to you. This sensory overload begins to cause you physical and mental distress. The noise itself is annoying and you are still trying to figure out what you need to learn in the meeting/class. Three more spoons have been used.

Sensory inputs from the environment, mental thinking and processing, emotional processing and management, routines and expectations all factor into the mental load being imposed on the brain.

Think about how many spoons you use in typical a day

Keep stepping through a typical day and view each task as requiring some number of spoons.

Do you get to the end of the day with a surplus of spoons, feeling generally good about how things went?

Have you used every single spoon and are at zero and need to sleep/be done with the day?

Or are you at a deficit, having run out of spoons hours ago when you were unable to quit the day and still had to navigate chores, responsibilities, and social situations? Are so depleted of energy (and spoons) that you want to shut down, lose patience, and your ability to put things in perspective?

In these examples one’s mental/emotional/physical energy was represented by an allotment of spoons. In the tea cup example the metaphor was our personal cup being able to hold so much tea (i.e., energy to deal with daily tasks/stresses). 

Both ways of thinking give us perspectives in which to view ourselves and the kids in our lives. Forget about someone (adult or child) deciding to “act” good or bad or that behavior is “bad” in and of itself. Behavior and reactions stem from our individual capacities to manage this complicated world as a complex human. It is not easy. Empathy is needed and true understanding of each other so we can give each other the support, time, and space needed.

Why am I writing about all of this?

I think these two ideas can also be related to executive function in our brain, particularly Working Memory.

Working Memory and how much our brains can process

Working memory is the function in our brain of holding onto information long enough to PROCESS it and USE it.

Much like a teacup being filled with tea our brain takes in information. The information plus how it is being provided or taught to us are both inputs for working memory to process. Let’s put this in the context of a student in class.

Math lesson utilizing working memory

The student is sitting at a desk listening to the teacher explain fractions. Fractions are a new topic for the student. The student’s working memory receives new inputs:

new vocabulary words the student hears,

numbers and fraction symbols that are visually presented on a white board,

more auditory information spoken by the teacher about how to write a fraction,

and more visual information about how a pizza or a slice of pie relates to a number on top of a line with another number underneath.

As the student watches and listens to this lesson they are trying to understand what they are learning and also trying to commit some of this information to their long-term memory.

Once a task or skill has been practiced enough to create a schema in our long-term memory then our working memory has to do less of the heavy-lifting. But for now keep in mind that the student has no schema for understanding and using fractions.

The working memory contains all of the inputs – or cognitive load.

Think of cognitive load like dirt in a wheelbarrow

I used an infographic on social media once to depict this concept using a wheelbarrow. People can picture in their minds what a wheelbarrow full of dirt looks like. We can also imagine what a wheelbarrow filled with TOO MUCH dirt looks like. You have dirt spilling over the edges as you try to walk forward.

filling my brain's working memory with tasks is like filling a wheelbarrow with dirt

Using the wheelbarrow example try to imagine the student’s brain as the wheelbarrow receiving so many inputs from various sources.

The cognitive load (dirt) cannot exceed the working memory capacity (wheelbarrow).

Once the cognitive load becomes too much for the student to manage they can feel overwhelmed, unconfident, confused, sad, angry, or apathetic. 

As parents, guardians, and teachers let’s stop this from happening to the students.

Provide effective lessons with solid information and less meaningless details

Now that we better understand the capacity of our brains and the brains of the kids let’s use this awareness to create better instruction.

This can be instruction in a classroom or at home. Ask yourself these questions in order to determine how to tailor a lesson or task to the individual child’s needs.

  • What is the true goal of the task?
  • What are the required pieces of information that the child needs to receive?
  • What information is superfluous and unnecessary?
  • Does all the information need to be given at once or can it be broken into pieces?
  • How does this child receive information best (e.g., visually, verbally, etc.)?
  • When you give the lesson/instructions is the child’s mind free to focus on the task?
    • Are environmental distractions present?
    • Has the child mentally transitioned from whatever they were just doing to be in a place where they are ready to receive your information?
  • How will you engage the child in the lesson/task so they are an active participant?

I have found that the lessons and tasks we expect of our kids at school and at home can be simplified and made more robust if we think about them in this framework.

Creating trusting relationships and effective learning opportunities needs conscious awareness of the mental load and working memory capacity of the child.

We can guide this narrative while staying mindful that meltdowns and big emotional reactions are a sign that we need to modify the process and try again.

Now that you know how to help your child not become mentally overloaded learn how to harness motivation in kids with ADHD.

Visit my Learning Resources page to see how I have taken homework assignments and broken them into manageable pieces for my kids.

Subscribe to my newsletter for ideas you can try at home and free printables!

Scroll to Top
Skip to content