Is your child super forgetful and can’t seem to follow instructions? They may have a poor working memory. Working memory is extremely important for learning and this post goes through some ways we can help our kids improve their working memories and function more successfully both at home and at school.
Firstly, I want to apologise if you’ve been waiting, this episode is a couple of weeks late. Unfortunately, my laptop was stolen on a flight from San Francisco just 2 days before some interviews I had lined up. So that put me into a bit of a technological crisis and we weren’t able to do the interviews.
I did run out and buy a new laptop, however, and since the interviews had to be postponed I decided to look further into working memory. Steven, who is an early childhood teacher in Queensland, Australia, reached out through Facebook to ask me to talk about working memory. So that’s what I’m doing today!
Working memory is one part of a larger system called executive function. Think about what an executive does. They have a problem, they think through the alternative choices and make a decision on what needs to happen, then they give orders or take action to deal with the problem, and then finally evaluate how well it all worked, or didn’t work. That is how executive function works for us – it’s how we go about solving problems, making decisions and carrying them out.
It’s a complex process that mostly uses our frontal lobes, which continue to develop right through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.
Working memory is one part of executive function. Some other aspects are impulse and emotional control, flexible thinking, planning and prioritizing and organisation. All these areas don’t work in isolation, they’re interlinked, so children with poor working memory may struggle with these other areas of executive function as well, which makes things even more difficult for the child.
Also what we might call ‘cool’ decision making, such as when we’re just sorting cards by shape and colour for example accesses a different part of the frontal cortex to ‘hot’ or emotional decision making. When there’s something at stake. So it’s good to be aware that emotional content can change the way a child is able to reason things out.
Improves throughout childhood
Infants pretty much just respond to the stimuli around them. Preschoolers, on the other hand, are able to think about the past and the present and decide between options. But this doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be able to stick to their decision or option, because their ability to consciously control their thoughts, actions and emotions is still severely limited.
What is working memory?
Just as it sounds, our working memory is our ability to hold information in our head in the short term that we’ll need in order to complete whatever task we’re working on. For example, if I ask a child to write, ‘my dog is running to the pond,’ they need to keep that whole sentence in their working memory while they’re writing. Now they might need to concentrate to sound out the word ‘dog,’ and by the time they’ve finished writing the word the sentence might have disappeared from their mind. They can no longer recall it.
There are 2 parts to working memory: auditory memory and visual-spatial memory. One part focuses on what we hear, and the other on what we see. I’m not going into that today because it’s not really necessary in the context of this discussion. Working memory is NOT the same as short-term memory, but again, I’m kind of using them interchangeably here because I like to simplify things as much as possible as long as it doesn’t change the essential message.
When a child has poor working memory, it’s very difficult for them remember more than one step at a time. The problem is, when kids can’t remember a task they tend to get fidgety and distracted, and it’s easy to think that the child is not concentrating, that they’re not interested or that they’re being purposely disruptive or off-task. But in reality, they just can’t hold on to the information they need in their short term memory.
This is a real problem for these kids because poor working memory is linked to poor academics over the long term. And in an inability to stay focused in the classroom.
More important that IQ
In fact, working memory is now considered a much more important component than IQ, in determining future academic success. For children whose working memory is at the bottom 10%, over 80% of those children will have significant problems with math or reading, or most commonly, both. In a class of 30 children, typically there will be 4 or 5 who have low working memory abilities.
ADHD / poor working memory
One piece of research that I found very interesting was that being at-risk academically was pretty equal between kids with ADHD and kids with poor working memories. However, the ADHD kids often qualify for learning support in the classroom, but kids with poor working memory do not. This is something that we need to be more aware of, and that needs to change. We need to advocate for these kids.
All of us have a specific amount of information that we can hold and manipulate in our working memory at one time. And usually it’s not very much. Typically, we can hold more and more going from childhood to around 14 or 15 years of age where it’s at adult levels. However, it’s not the same for everyone, there’s quite a wide disparity of ability amongst any one age group.
Some children develop atypically and it’s common for children with a wide range of developmental disorders to have poor working memories. But it also occurs in children with no diagnosed disorder and it’s a red flag for learning problems.
How does it present?
Whether a child is in the classroom or at home there are some signs to look for if you’re concerned a child is struggling due to their working memory.
- Poor academic progress
- Difficulty in following instructions that have multiple steps
- Failure to complete common tasks that require information to be held in their mind
- Inability to know where they’re up to with complex tasks such as writing, doing math problems or trying to comprehend what they’re reading.
- A high level of inattention or distractible behaviour.
There are formal testing procedures, but it’s generally better to talk to a specialist if you have concerns and want a firmer opinion.
How we learn
Generally speaking, learning happens as we go through tasks or discoveries, step-by-step. When these individual steps require more working memory than a child has they cannot progress. And if they cannot successfully complete the earlier steps, how can they get to and grasp the larger concept at the end?
If children cannot remember what to do in the middle of a task, they’re going to become distracted or give up and in this way they lose many, many learning opportunities. It doesn’t take long for these children to lag, academically, behind others.
What can we do?
Currently, there are 2 main approaches taken.
- To adapt the child’s environment
- To specifically target and train a child’s working memory function
There are 2 lesser approaches I want to mention for interest’s sake.
- Some drugs can also assist with working memory, such as Ritalin. But that’s between families and their doctors and not something I’ll be discussing here. After all, such drugs are not given specifically to improve working memory but that may be a side product.
- Brain stimulation. Apparently there’s research being done on stimulating specific areas of the frontal cortex using a low level electric current. It’s shown an increase in performance speed but no effect on working memory at the moment. So we won’t be zapping each other any time soon.
Adapt the environment
1. Reduce memory load
For teachers the most helpful approach we can take is to reduce the memory load needed in our classrooms. We can break down tasks and only give one or two instructions at a time rather than expecting our kids to remember multiple instructions at once.
It’s also good to present the same information to children multiple times and in different ways.
3. Memory aids
We can encourage the use of memory aids, such as a word list if they’re writing, or a step-by-step poster if they’re creating a craft. Something that helps jog their memory.
4. Play memory games
Play card games or other memory-type games so they can practice using their working memories.
5. Create mental pictures
Ask kids to close their eyes and create mental pictures, mental snapshots of what they’re being taught, or of the instructions they’ve been given. If they forget, perhaps closing their eyes and thinking of that mental picture might remind them of where they’re up to, or where they’re heading to.
6. Gesture and move
Encourage children to move while they’re learning, encourage them to use their hands to gesture while they’re learning and remembering. Moving and gesturing has been proven in many studies to improve working memory and recall. Even when children watch us gesturing as we teach, it improves their outcomes.
It sounds odd, but it’s true. So make sure your arms are free and clear when you’re interacting with your kids and don’t be afraid to consolidate what you’re saying, by the use of your arms and hands. Be physically expressive and encourage your kids to be physically expressive, too. If they want to use their fingers and toes to count, let them. Mental math is extremely difficult for these children and it can be too much to ask them to just do calculations in their head.
7. Run barefoot and concentrate
One study showed that kids enhanced their working memories if they ran for 16 mins without shoes on, but only if they had to look down and concentrate on where they put their feet. For eg, to avoid stepping on something that might hurt. To me, this says let’s get our kids’ shoes off in the playground and create some kind of obstacle course so they have to pay attention to where they’re putting their feet. They’re getting exercise, they’re having fun, their brains are chilling out between classes and they’re working their frontal lobes… an all-around win!
8. A chilled out classroom
And most importantly, create an atmosphere in the classroom where it’s OK to ask for clarification, it’s OK to have forgotten something.
9. Teach kids to be strategic
As well as making things easier for the children, this approach encourages kids to think about their own strategies. To be aware of the difficulties of holding things in their head, and how they can compensate for this.
Results to look for
- The more effectively these strategies are implemented, the greater the results are in children’s language and math development.
- Most teachers find that it’s fairly easy to make these adaptions within whatever curriculum they’re using, and they become much more aware that often, when children can’t complete tasks, it’s more to do with working memory and forgetfulness than an inability to understand the task.
- When children are able to work within the limits of their own working memory, they experience a lot more success.
- It’s not known at present how beneficial these techniques are over the long term, but they’re simple to implement, positive for the children, and they give the teacher a practical and effective way to support and encourage the kids in their classroom.
Training up a child’s working memory
There are online training programs available where kids work through a series of computer games for, say, 10-20 mins a day, or several times a day for 5-10 weeks. These range in price from $50 to over $2000. There are also programs available through psychologists or individual schools. I am not naming any specific programs here because I don’t want to be seen as endorsing any particular training program, but you can find them through a bit of googling.
There are conflicting opinions as to whether these types of programs are effective. Some types of training may show improved results at the end, but only for tasks that are similar to the brain training itself. They have not transferred, for example, to making reading comprehension easier.
Other results show children making significant gains over a 6-month period that include improved math and literacy skills. And I know that there are much longer training programs out there that have shown strong successes because their aim is to actually change the wiring of the brain to strengthen those very specific areas that are weak. And these are said to be long-term forever-type changes.
Brain training raises revenue
As a word of warning, brain training is popular at the moment and it generates huge amounts of revenue. That is always a sign that you need to be very careful what you buy into. There is no guarantee that any one method is going to work, but it’s important to be aware of whether a program has been scientifically tested to be effective. And even science can be bamboozled. Research has shown that when testing these programs, psychologists for example, who know parents have paid money for a course tend to overemphasize the positive effects. When they’re blind-tested, that is, when they don’t know which kids have been through a course and which haven’t, the results show substantially less progress.
I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful here, but I’m not in a position to personally endorse any specific brain training program. If you have experience in this area, please leave a comment on this post. I’d really love to hear your experiences, whether positive or disappointing.
In the meantime, whether we’re teachers or parents or both, we can always be mindful of working memory limitations and be kind to our kids by not bombarding them with too much information or instructions or complex tasks. Even kids with efficient working memories can find this overwhelming! Add in some card playing, a little bit of computer games and bare-foot running around and most of all, positive affirmations to give them confidence that they can progress and will move forward.
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Thanks for joining me to learn more about early childhood research and I wish you happy teaching and learning.
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