Working Memory and it’s impact on children’s learning

Researchers estimate that about 10-15% of children at school have working memory problems, but these are often misidentified as deficits of attention or intelligence (Holmes, 2009). Therefore, it is important for us to help parents and teachers understand what working memory is, how it affects a child’s learning, and what we can do to help.

What is working memory?

Have you ever found yourself needing to record a new phone number unexpectedly? Do you repeat the number over and over again in your mind while you search for a pen or type it into your phone? Yes? Well this is your working memory in action!

When we talk about “working memory” what we are referring to is the ability to hold and mentally manipulate information in our mind over short periods of time.

It is a cognitive process that we need to use in order to meaningfully participate in many everyday activities, such as having conversations, following instructions, reading unfamiliar words or doing mathematical equations in our head.

Working memory differs from person to person…

Young children generally have very small working memory capacities that gradually increase until they reach adult capacities in the teenage years. An adult’s working memory capacity is more than double that of a 4 year old child’s.

However, there can be large differences in working memory capacity between different children of the same age. For example, in a typical class of 30 children aged 7 to 8 years, it is expected that at least three of these children would have the working memory capacities of the average 4-year-old child and three others would have the capacities of the average 11-year-old child, which is quite close to adult levels. Therefore, a particular activity may be well within the working memory capacity for one child, but exceed the capacity of another.

It is important to note that working memory affects how a child learns and how a child performs on tests, but it does not equal lower intelligence. Working memory and IQ are not the same thing. Some studies have even indicated that early working memory skills are actually a better predictor of later academic achievement then were early IQ scores. (Alloway, 2010) Furthermore, unlike IQ, working memory did not correlate with the parents’ socioeconomic status or educational level.

Our working memory is not fool-proof!

Working memory is often thought of as a mental workspace or mental notepad that we can use to store important information when there are no external supports such as written notes or calculators available. However, there are limitations and unfortunately this means that our working memory can fail us when we need it. In order to hold information in our working memory we need to continue paying attention to it. Information is often lost when we are distracted (such as by having an unrelated thought spring to mind, or by being interrupted by someone speaking or the phone ringing), trying to retain too much information or completing a demanding task. Once information has been lost from working memory it is gone for good! So if you want to move forward, you will need to go back to the beginning and start the process all over again.

What is the cause of low working memory?

The reason why some children have poor working memory skills is not yet well understood. It is, however, known that low working memory is not strongly related to factors relating to the child’s background, such as inadequacies in pre-school experiences or education, or with the quality of social or intellectual stimulation in the home. It seems likely that genes play an important role in the frontal areas of the brain that support working memory.

Working memory difficulties often co-exist with other issues, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD but they can also be a stand-alone problem.

Signs of poor working memory in children…

Typically, children with poor working memory:

  • are well-adjusted socially
  • are reserved in group activities in the classroom, rarely volunteering answers and sometimes not answering direct questions
  • behave as though they have not paid attention, for example forgetting part or all of instructions or messages, or not seeing tasks through to completion
  • frequently lose their place in complicated tasks that they may eventually abandon
  • have difficulty getting started on tasks
  • are slow to copy work down off the board
  • forget the content of messages and instructions
  • make poor academic progress during the school years, particularly in the areas of reading and mathematics
  • are considered by their teachers to have short attention spans and also to be easily distracted.

Working memory in the classroom

Children need to use their working memory constantly in the classroom. Whether it’s for reading, maths, science or any other area of the curriculum, the child often needs to hold some kind of information in their mind while doing something that is mentally challenging for them.

For example, even a “simple task” such as writing a sentence about something they did on the weekend can be a real challenge. In this instance, the child needs to think of a sentence and hold it in their working memory whilst they simultaneously focus on writing and spelling each individual word within the sentence. Children with poor working memory struggle with these kinds of tasks (and often fail to complete them) because their working memory has lost the crucial information needed to guide their actions. For instance, they may forget the sentence that they are trying to write down, or they may lose track of which word they are up to within the sentence, or which letter they need to write next to spell a particular word.

Children with poor working memory often have difficulty following instructions, particularly instructions that have multiple parts or steps (such as, “Please give me the red pencil, then pick up the blue eraser and put it in the green box.”). They may forget the instruction before the whole sequence has been completed, or they may try to follow the key steps but lose the details along the way. As a result, the child may fall behind because they have difficulty keeping up with the normal pace of ongoing classroom activities. Whilst it might seem as though the child has not paid attention, the reality may be that they simply cannot remember what they were supposed to do.

Reading is yet another classroom skill that requires the use of working memory. When trying to decode an unknown word when reading, children need to hold the letter sounds (e.g. ‘s’ ‘t’ ‘a’ ‘n’ and ‘d’) in their mind (working memory) and then combine the sounds to decode the word ‘stand’. Furthermore, in terms of reading comprehension, while working hard to decode written words, children need to use their working memory to keep track of the overall “gist” of the text. It is thought that about 70% of children with reading difficulties have poor working memory skills.

Strategies to help children with working memory difficulties…

There are some simple strategies parents and teachers can use to reduce the memory load of children who have working memory difficulties:

  • Repeat information as required
  • Break tasks and instructions down into smaller components
  • Use gestures when speaking
  • Prompt with regular reminders of what they need to do next to finish a task
  • Encourage children to ask questions when they have lost their way
  • Ask children to repeat key information back
  • Encourage the use of memory aids—such as number lines, chunking, acronyms, word walls, mind maps, printed notes, Dictaphones etc.

Remember…

Children with poor working memory are often misunderstood and thought of as being lazy, inattentive or uncooperative. This is not true. Most often these children are trying their best but their poor working memory causes them to lose track of what they are doing and make mistakes.

Currently, there are no known ways to improve working memory directly. However, there are many strategies that can be used to enhance learning in children with working memory difficulties. These primarily involve helping parents and teachers to manage children’s working memory loads at home and in the classroom, with the aim of alleviating the disruptive consequences on learning of excessive working memory loads.

If you are concerned about your child’s working memory you should ask an educational and developmental psychologist for advice.

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References:

Alloway TP and Alloway RG. 2010. Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 106(1): 20-29.

Alloway TP. 2007. Automated working memory assessment. Oxford: Harcourt.

Gathercole SE and Alloway TP. 2007. Understanding working memory. London: Harcourt.

Holmes J, Gathercole SE, and Dunning DL. 2009. Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Dev Sci. 12(4):F9-15.

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