Is Your Child’s ‘Working Memory’ Holding Her Back?

child working memory

Takeaway: Working memory helps us process and use information — much life RAM in a computer. So, poor working memory makes it harder for children to succeed at school and in life. But once they understand the basics of working memory, they can adapt and become more efficient learners.

Our brain is a powerful tool and memory is one of its core features.

We notice a lot of things about the world around us (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) and we give these things meaning through our thoughts. But if we don’t remember these thoughts and experiences, they become useless. That’s why psychologists and biologists have been studying the importance of memory for over a century. And in that time, we’ve steadily learned more about how this feature of the mind works. For example, back in 1880 (when the term ‘memory’ was first coined) we thought of it as a single thing. But now we know there are different kinds of memory.

We’ve all heard of long-term and short-term memory.

Long-term memory is information we remember for hours, years, and decades.

This is the data we store for long periods of time. It usually sits in our subconscious (we aren’t ‘aware’ of it) but we can access it when needed. And not all long-term memories are equal. It’s easier to remember the important stuff (e.g., our parents’ names) but less important memories need something to trigger them. For example, you suddenly remember a prank you played at school, but only after an old classmate gets you talking about the good old days. You can strengthen long-term memories like this, though. The more often you think of them, the quicker they’ll come to mind next time.

Short-term memory is information we have readily at hand.

These are the memories we have only for very short periods of time. For example, if you tell your child to fetch you a pen that’s in a particular drawer, she’ll be using her short-term memory to remember your instructions. It’s information that’s ready to be used, but lasts for seconds, rather than minutes. Also, short-term memory can only store manageable bits of information. So, you might remember a phone number, but struggle to remember map coordinates to your local McDonalds.

There’s a lesser-known type of memory, though. It’s called ‘working memory,’ and it plays a huge role in how well we live our day-to-day lives.

Think of working memory as being like the RAM in your computer. It helps you process information, so the better it works, the faster you’re able to get things done. For example, when you’re working out a maths sum in your mind, you’re using your working memory. You’re using it to remember the solution to each step and apply it to the next one.

Working memory is related to short-term memory, but they’re not the same thing.

With short-term memory, you’re remembering a chunk of information. But with working memory, you’re applying that chunk of information to something. So, you’ll use your short term memory to remember the ingredients in a recipe. But you’ll use your working memory when you start mixing the ingredients. It’s how you remember what you’ve just added and what you’ll need to add next. Interestingly, long-term memory often gets involved, to boost your working memory. For example, if you have to remember the letter/number combination MI5MI6, your long-term memory might help you out because you’ve already chunked and remembered MI5 and MI6 from the last Bond movie you watched.

As you can imagine, if your child has trouble with her working memory, she’ll struggle in class.

Here are a few of the challenges she’ll face:

  • Remembering instructions. Assume she’s doing an art project and her teacher gives her a series of instructions. Even if it’s only a few steps, there’s a lot of other information your child has to process. What paper should she use? Which paintbrush is best? Where should she start? If she can’t process this quickly, she’ll likely get anxious about lagging behind her classmates who seem to have figured things out.
  • Taking part in class discussions. Group discussions can be terrifying if you can’t keep up. For example, if the teacher asks a question, your child might forget the first part of the question by the time the teacher is done. And then she might have forgotten which aspects of the discussion her classmates just covered. Or if it’s a debate based on text that was read out, your child might not remember the text.
  • Taking notes. If the teacher is moving quickly from thought to thought, your child might struggle to keep up. As she’s scrambling to remember the first thought and jot it down, two others fly by. With a younger child, this shows up as being slow at copying things down from the board. She might have to keep rechecking the words as she’s copying them, because her working memory can only hold a few letters at a time.
  • Writing essays. She might lose her train of thought as she writes. So she’ll have to keep going back and re-reading earlier paragraphs. This might be okay at home but it’ll become a problem during exams. Her thoughts might come across as disorganised even though she understands the concepts well.

Issues with working memory can wear away at your child’s self-esteem and confidence.

As we’ve just seen, working memory affects classroom performance. So, your child might begin to feel like she’s not as smart as her classmates (which is just not true). And if keeping up with the class is such a struggle, she might start withdrawing — for example, asking fewer questions. And this means she gets left behind even more. Worse still, some teachers might label her as ‘lazy’ for not finishing work on time, or ‘disruptive’ for breaking the flow of a classroom discussion.

So, can we help children improve their working memory?

The great thing about a child’s brain is its plasticity. That is, its ability to change and restructure itself. The brain cells can quite literally rewire themselves based on the things a child learns and does. This is how a child with dyslexia or ADHD can learn to adapt her learning style. And it’s how we can help children use their working memory more efficiently. Here’s what you can do:

1. Accept and get to know your child’s limits.

You should certainly encourage your child to step out of her comfort zone, but be realistic, too. She can change and grow, but it’ll be a slow process. So, learn to recognise when she’s struggling, and tweak things accordingly. For example, you might notice she gets confused when you give her a string of instructions: “Tidy your room, pack your bag for school, wash up, and call your sister for dinner.” Instead of giving her all those instructions at once, consider asking her to do just one task. And when she’s finished it, she can report to you for the next task.

2. Help her understand what’s going on in her mind.

You can teach her about working memory and why she has problems with particular tasks. Once she’s grasped this, she can learn how to ask for help or tell people to slow down when needed. The key is that this isn’t something she needs to be ashamed of. She just needs to learn how to adapt.

3. Teach her to use the right tools.

If she finds it hard to remember things, she can get in the habit of writing them down. This could be as simple as jotting down thoughts in a notebook, or as advanced as using to-do lists and calendar apps. But these tools are useful only if she uses them consistently. So, you’ll need to encourage her — perhaps by using the tools yourself.    

4. Break tasks down into manageable chunks.

Just as with long instructions, break down complicated tasks into steps. For example, writing an essay might seem like a formidable challenge, but it’s really a series of mini-tasks: (1) Gather information, (2) Create an outline for the essay, (3) Write a draft, (4) Edit the draft, and (5) Add finishing touches. Breaking down tasks like this can help prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed.

5. Create routines.

Your child uses a lot of her working memory when making conscious choices. So, a lot of that mental energy gets freed up if she can switch to autopilot. And routines are the ultimate autopilot switch. Try and get her into a morning routine to get ready for school, an evening homework routine, and a wind-down routine before bed.

6. Consult a specialist

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child’s challenges, and aren’t sure where to start, 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.

Working memory might be a challenge right now, but it can shift the way your child approaches life.

Struggling with working memory can be a teachable moment. And the lesson is that we can accept ourselves for who we are, celebrate our strengths, and get help to compensate for our weaknesses. Just the act of having an open and honest conversation with your child about these things can help her see the world differently. And this can end up being a pivotal moment in her life!

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