How Will Working-Memory Difficulties Affect Your Child?

How Will Working Memory Difficulties Affect Your Child

Takeaway: Working memory issues make it harder for your child to pay attention to things. And this affects how she learns, socialises, and lives her life. Although we can’t magically improve her working memory, there’s a lot we can do to help her adapt. And this can radically change her quality of life. 

Have you ever had absent-minded moments when you’re in the middle of the simplest task, but still get stuck?

Think back to that time you misplaced your keys or struggled to do some simple maths in your head. Or when you didn’t quite know how to respond to a question someone asked you. Or when your partner gave you a list of chores but you forget what you were supposed to do. These simple tasks might seem easily doable, yet we stumble with them occasionally.

These experiences are similar to what happens when you have issues with your working memory.

We need a base level of working memory to get things done. Psychologists define working memory as our capacity to store information while applying our minds to a task or activity. But there’s a simpler way of looking at it. Think of working memory as being like a table. If you’re packing for a trip, you can use a table to lay out and organise all the things you want to take with you. And this makes it easier to figure out what to keep and what to leave behind. Similarly, working memory is the process in our brains that lets us lay out and organise our thoughts, ideas, and input from the world around us. For example, if someone is talking to you, you’ll need to remember what they’re saying, interpret what this means, and then come up with a reply. You do all of this with your working memory, and if that’s poorly developed, then you’ll have one of those embarrassing ‘absent minded’ moments.

Children with working memory issues often find seemingly simple tasks very challenging.

You’d be surprised how important working memory is in your child’s life. And if it’s underdeveloped — i.e., if she doesn’t have enough ‘mental workspace’ to process things — she’ll have problems with many easy tasks. For example, something as simple as following directions becomes so much more complicated. Imagine someone telling her to, ‘Go on down this road, turn left at the roundabout, and take your second right.’ That’s three different steps that she has to keep in mind as she tries to find her way. Near impossible. Another example would be trying to introduce a new classmate to everyone, having just heard her name. She’ll have to keep the name in mind for a few seconds, think of something witty to say, and then deliver the introduction. Very tough if your working memory isn’t up to it.

The most obvious sign of poor working memory is finding it hard to pay attention.

In an earlier post, we explored how ADHD makes children inattentive, impulsive, and/or hyperactive. In contrast, poor working memory makes children inattentive but not necessarily impulsive or hyperactive. This means that they’re not disruptive but often seem to let their minds wander. A typical example would be a child trying to read page after page of a book and finding it hard to stay focused. She might re-read each paragraph but never quite be able to follow the author’s line of thought. And if she gives up, it’s not that she doesn’t care about finishing the book. Rather, it’ll be because her brain is just too tired from the effort.

These attention issues make it hard for children with underdeveloped working memory to learn things.

Learning takes up a lot of the ‘mental workspace’ of working memory. That’s because a brain that’s learning something new needs to take in the information, remember parts of it, and apply that to more information that follows. For example, if a young child is asked to listen to a poem and spot the rhyming words, she’ll need to process what she’s hearing, pick out similar-sounding words, and then remember them till the poem is over. It’s the same thing for an older child who has to listen to an essay and then share her thoughts about it. There’s a lot going on, so children with underdeveloped working memory will begin to forget the rhyming words or the essay’s main argument. And unfortunately, this kind of memory overload means that they’ll struggle with things like reading, maths, and science — which are the foundations of most primary and secondary school education.

What makes it even harder is that working memory issues can prevent children from trying to apply themselves.

The difficulty here is that working memory doesn’t just affect the act of learning. It also affects the decision to try to learn. Even before their brains start to process information, children have to decide that it’s worth focusing on the lecture, the book, the activity, etc. So this makes learning a goal-directed process. And working memory changes how good a child is at sticking with these goals. Remember, an inattentive child will find it hard to stick with her learning goal if another, more appealing goal — like doodling in her book — comes along.

These sorts of challenges often begin to change a child’s behaviour and approach to life.

The frustrating thing about working memory deficits is that they can derail even the most talented children. For example, you can have a child who is a great entertainer with the potential to create compelling stories in film, theatre, or even YouTube. But force her to write a script with strict instructions (about characters, conflict, resolution of tension, etc.), and she’ll likely struggle. Her working memory issues make this sort of structure seem suffocating since there’s too much to process. So, unless the adults in her life pick up on this, she’ll likely give up on the very talent that can bring her the most joy.

Working memory plays a part in a child’s friendships, too.

Children have to navigate a complex social world with a tangled web of relationships. Just as with learning in a classroom, they’ll have to process a lot of ‘social information’ on the playground. For example, while talking to friends, they’ll have to remember who is saying what, who gets upset about which subjects, who looks uneasy, and so on. And unless they process these things quickly and well, they can come across as socially awkward. This could affect how easily they make friends and how included they feel — which, in turn, determines how happy they are. Interestingly, this sort of social stress can then further worsen their working memory capacity. It’s like how stagefright makes us forget what we want to say. The brain (and working memory) is affected by stress, regardless of where the stress comes from.

It’s not all bad news, though. We can help if your child has working memory challenges.

The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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