How Does Poor Working Memory Impact Your Child’s Life?
Takeaway: Working memory is the short-term storage your child uses to make sense of the world. Poor working memory will make school harder for her, might chip away at her self-esteem, and could complicate her emotional life. And over the years, these issues can snowball, causing long-term damage. But with the help of a skilled specialist, your child can learn tools and techniques to help address these challenges.
If your brain is like a computer, ‘working memory’ is the RAM that powers it.
We do a lot of complex stuff every day. We analyse problems, brainstorm solutions, put those solutions into action, adapt our plan along the way, and so on. The sorts of mental processes (i.e., analysing, organising, deciding, etc.) that help us do all this are called ‘executive functions’. And working memory is one of these executive functions. Think of it like the RAM in your computer. It’s short-term storage, where your brain puts all the things it’s currently working on. When you ask for directions in the supermarket, you’re using your working memory to store and interpret what you hear. Or when you add a string of numbers, your working memory is where you store the sum of the first two numbers while you add it to the others. (Learn more about working-memory.)
Unfortunately, many children have an under-developed working memory. And this affects their day-to-day lives.
Working memory is a fundamental executive function that it affects many parts of your child’s life. For example, your child is trying to tell a friend a joke she’s just heard, but without being able to keep all its parts in the right order! Or trying to summarise a history lesson when she keeps forgetting what she’s read just two paragraphs earlier.
Poor working memory usually affects your child’s academic life the most. For example, it makes maths and reading so much harder.
Working memory powers visual-spatial skills. That is, your child’s ability to tell where objects are in space. You’d expect that visual-spatial skills matter for sports (for example, zeroing in on a football so she can kick it). But they are essential in the classroom, too. Especially for maths and reading. For example, to solve ‘5 + 6 – 2’, your child has to recognise and keep the order of the numbers on the page in front of her. Because ‘5 + 6 – 2’ is different from ‘5 + 2 – 6’. And if she’s working these sums out on paper, she’ll have to align the numbers vertically to add them (especially if these were two-digit numbers). Later on in life she’ll graduate to trigonometry and calculus, where she’ll need to imagine objects rotating in space. This requires even more advanced visual-spatial skills. And it’s the same with reading. She’ll need to see the difference between a ‘W’ and an ‘M’ — which are rotated versions of each other. And ‘dog’ and ‘god’ — which are the same letters, reordered. As you’re probably realising, there’s often an overlap between working-memory deficits and learning disabilities like dyslexia. The same sorts of mechanisms are at play in both.
Working memory also colours how your child feels in the classroom.
It’s not just the lessons that will be trying for her. It’s the classroom experience, too. For example, in a maths class, she’ll likely be given a series of instructions to solve a sum. But as we’ve seen, following instructions means remembering its steps and carrying them out in order. That’s a big ask for a child with working memory deficits. She’s likely to finish the first step, then stop. Or skip a step. Or get frustrated and give up completely. Even something like copying sentences from the board is a challenge because it means remembering the words long enough to write them down. And write them down in the correct order, too.
This sort of ‘working memory overload’ makes your child easily distractible, and her teacher might assume she’s slacking off on purpose.
Your child might be trying as hard as she can, but will obviously get frustrated when her working memory is overloaded. If she gets annoyed and gives up, her teacher might assume she’s not trying hard enough or has attention issues like ADHD. But this isn’t the case. Children with ADHD are restless, hyperactive, or impulsive. Instead, your child’s mind is just shutting down because its working memory is ‘full up’. In fact, she might be trying harder than most of her classmates, but her mind just isn’t cooperating. (Note: Children with ADHD might have working-memory difficulties, but poor working memory does not necessarily mean a child has ADHD.)
Working memory deficits affect self-esteem, but not in the way you’d expect.
Your child’s challenges mainly lie in the classroom, so any self-esteem issues will usually be classroom-related. Outside of school, socialising and being accepted by her friends doesn’t rely as heavily on working memory. So, she’ll likely get on fine with everyone and have a healthy social life — which in turn will mean she’ll feel that she’s ‘good enough’. It’s in the classroom during larger, structured group-activities that she’ll withdraw and go quiet. This might lead her to think she’s not smart or that she’s ‘bad with numbers’, and these sorts of thoughts could chip away at her self-esteem. But it’ll be specifically her ‘academic’ self-esteem, rather than her more generalised sense of self.
Children with working memory issues often have trouble handling their emotions. But this might not be because of working memory alone.
Many teachers notice a trend of children with working memory issues also having emotion-control problems. Psychologists suspect that this is probably because many of these children also have other challenges like ADHD or oppositional defiant disorder. And it’s these disorders, rather than working memory problems, that cause the emotion-control issues.
What’s worrying is that your child can face long-term impacts from the challenges we’ve discussed.
Working memory problems don’t necessarily get worse, but their impact can build up over time. A child who is slightly behind at age 5 might be significantly more behind when she’s 16, because the subjects have got more complicated. At 5, she’d get a lot of support and have access to better teaching and memory aids. But by 16, she’d be expected to have her own learning strategies. For example, repeatedly going over the same content might work at age 5, but won’t with the more advanced lessons a 16-year-old deals with. And even if she develops learning techniques that help with one subject (maths, for example), they’re usually not transferable to other subjects (English, for example). So, unless someone spots and addresses her working memory deficits, your child’s life as an adult will likely be significantly scarred by her experiences as a struggling student.
As a parent, you can help by keeping an eye out for working memory troubles.
Ideally, you’ll want to take your child to a psychologist for a formal assessment, but there are signs you can spot at home. For example, have you noticed that your child has trouble sticking with a task or following instructions? Say you ask her to go upstairs, clean her room, and then have a bath — does she do all those things? Or does she wander off halfway through? Then, does she forget things often? For example, does she forget parts of recent conversations she’s had? Or misplace things (like workbooks, stationary, etc.)? Or lose an idea if she has to wait for a few minutes before sharing it? These are all red flags to keep an eye out for.
If you’re concerned that your child has working memory problems, consider consulting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
- 7 Steps to Better Emotional Regulation In Secondary-Age Children
- Why Children Need to Learn to Manage Their Emotions
- Has Your Toddler Reached the Right Developmental Milestones?
- Why Auditory Delays Are So Easy to Miss
- What Are the Signs of ADHD? And What Can You Do About Them?
- How Speech Therapy Can Solve ‘Swallowing’ Issues (Dysphagia)
- Is Your Child’s ‘Working Memory’ Holding Her Back?
- Why Do Some Children Take Longer to Process Things?
- The Inner World of Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH) Needs
- Can Children Practice Mindfulness? And Does It Work?
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