Why Is Auditory Working Memory So Important?

Why Is Auditory Working Memory So Important

Takeaway: Auditory working memory is a virtual ‘workspace’ in our mind. It’s where we temporarily store sounds we hear as we try to make sense of them. This working memory is crucial in so many daily tasks like solving problems, learning, following instructions, and more. And because of this, children with poor auditory working memory often struggle in school. But if they can learn to work with their strengths, instead, they’ll be able to overcome most difficulties. 

Our brains have an impressive ability to absorb and make sense of input from a vastly complex world. And working memory helps with this. Think of it as a temporary ‘workspace’ in your mind.

Imagine you’re reading an article about the pandemic. You’re taking in statistics, stories from survivors, reports from doctors, and so on. But how do you make sense of it all? Think of a tinkerer putting out the parts of a broken toaster on a table, first, before deciding how to fix it. Your brain is the same. It needs to lay out all that article’s information somewhere, before you can start to make sense of it. And working memory is a brain system that helps you do this. It holds the things we’ve just learned in storage for short periods of time so that we can fit them together like a puzzle and get some meaning from them. So, if you’re reading a list of numbers about mortality rates in different countries, your brain plays around with those statistics in your working memory — looking for patterns and meaning. Working memory is a core ability we need for things like planning, reasoning, and problem-solving, and it’s part of our critical executive functions. (Note: working memory is different from short-term memory. With short-term memory, you’re just holding information in your mind. In contrast, working memory lets you interact and play around with that information.)

Auditory working memory is working memory for sound. And it’s how we make sounds stay in our minds long after they’ve disappeared from the outside world.

There’s a difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’. When we ‘hear’ someone talking, our ears take in the sounds they make and send them to our brains. This happens automatically without us realising it. But ‘listening’ is much more than that. It’s something we do consciously to process what we’ve heard. We might ‘hear’ someone speaking to us, but it’s only by ‘listening’ that we figure out what they’re saying. This processing takes time, though, and the sounds would have disappeared by then. Auditory working memory solves this problem by keeping those sounds in our minds for a bit while helping us make sense of them.

Auditory working memory plays an essential role in your child’s life but at a much more basic level than you’d think.

It’s obviously going to be hard to do well in school if your working memory hasn’t developed enough. After all, you’ll need a lot of mental workspace to solve a multistep maths or science problem. But working memory affects your child at a much more basic level. She’ll need a lot of it just to pay attention in class. For example, imagine a teacher talking about an assignment due the next day. Your child needs to hear the words, hold them in her mind, and then put them together to form sentences using her working memory. If any part of that chain is broken, she won’t understand what’s going on and will pretty soon lose interest. It’s not that she doesn’t want to learn — her working memory is just letting her down. (This is why even children without working memory issues can struggle to focus in noisy environments. More of their mental capacity is used up to separate speech from the surrounding noise, which means there’s less of it available for working memory.)

If your child has issues with her auditory working memory, it’ll usually show up in one of the following ways.

Your child’s working memory will gradually increase as she grows older. From age 4 to adulthood, she’ll likely double her working memory capacity — both how much information she can hold at a time, and how long she can hold that information for. But if there are issues along the way, here’s how they’ll often show up:

  • Reading, writing, and spelling. Poor auditory working memory will make it harder for young children to learn how to read and write. This is because they’ll have trouble linking letters with sounds — an issue that’s also seen with learning differences.
  • Taking notes. Your child might struggle to take notes because she’ll have to multitask. She’ll have to both make sense of what the teacher is saying and write it down as she listens.
  • Solving problems. We usually need to go through a few mental steps when we’re trying to solve any problem. But since children with poor auditory working memory find it hard to keep these steps in mind, they might find this frustrating.
  • Learning languages. New words, in particular, become a nightmare for your child because she’ll have to process unfamiliar syllable combinations. (Words she already knows have been deeply embedded in her brain, so it takes less working memory to make sense of them.)
  • Following instructions. Your child might struggle if you give her a long set of instructions like: ‘Please bring me the brown book [not the yellow one] from the bedside table. It’s in the 2nd drawer, behind the old remotes.’ That’s way too much information packed too close together.

Researchers are still trying to figure out if they can improve working memory. But in the meantime, your child can learn ways to adapt.

The key is to help your child develop skills to compensate for her auditory working memory difficulties. For example, she can get into the habit of jotting things down. Long instructions, directions, new concepts, and vocabulary lists all become more manageable when they’re in writing. She can go over them at her own pace later, which takes off a lot of pressure in the moment. Also, by writing things down, she’s using her motor skills to support her listening ability. Moving her hand as she writes embeds the information in her mind more thoroughly than if she just heard it. (That’s why many students find that re-copying their class notes later helps them process the information better.) She can also use diagrams, photographs, videos, calendars, and timelines to harness more of her visual skills. For example, if teachers can give her a written outline of a particular lesson before they teach it, it’ll help her orient herself even if she’s distracted in class.

What’s critical, though, is that your child recognises and accepts these difficulties. Because then she’ll be more open to novel solutions.

Many children are embarrassed that they struggle with things their classmates seem to find easy. But if your child learns to accept her challenges for what they are — just challenges, not shortcomings — she’ll be able to go about solving her problems. For example, if she finds someone getting frustrated with her, she could explain that she finds it tough to focus on things and remember them. Most people will immediately become much more patient when they realise she’s not being difficult on purpose. She could then offer suggestions like, ‘Could you speak a little more slowly, please?’ or ‘Could you write that down for me?’

For younger children, you can make a game of practising memory skills.

One way of taking the ‘work’ out of building memory skills is to make a game of it. To practise following instructions, you could play Simon Says with your child. Or you could give her a simple task (like fetching something for you) and then gradually start adding more tasks to the list. Or if you’ve just finished storytime, you can quiz her about her favourite parts of the story. Try asking fun but unusual questions that challenge her, so she’ll have to think through her answers. These sorts of games allow her to face her difficulties in a safe setting with you around. If she gets frustrated, you’ll be able to guide her through that frustration, which will help her a lot later on in the classroom.

Do you think your child has difficulties with her auditory working memory? If so, consider contacting a specialist.

We understand that some children have working memory challenges that only a specialist can help with. That’s why The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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

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