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All it needs to do is work, work, work, work, work!

A discussion of working memory and how it affects our children.

Sometimes when children are battling to cope with classroom demands, poor working memory is to blame. This cognitive function is difficult to identify without proper testing and can sometimes look like a problem with concentration. Although, we do know that this difficulty also goes hand in hand with diagnosed disorders such as ADHD, learning disability and language difficulties.

Working memory is a kind of work space that we use to store information for short periods of time. We hold the information there while we use it. For example, very simply, if you were asked to add 8 and 3 then take away 4, you would need to keep the first answer in your working memory space before you dealt with the second part of the task.

If a learner can’t hold onto the information or have a ‘mental workspace’ they have to start the task over and this slows down their work pace and may appear as if they have not grasped the relevant concepts. According to Holmes (2012), working memory plays a crucial role in supporting learning and maintaining focussed behaviour in the classroom.

Our children require good, well-functioning working memory systems to perform a variety of tasks:

  • comprehend a text that they are reading,
  • do mathematical problem solving,
  • complete written language and
  • follow multi-step classroom instructions.

We are finding more and more learners who are showing difficulties with working memory.  Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, copyright 2010), discusses the negative impact the use of technology is having on our memory systems – particularly working memory. We take a quick shot of things we would previously have had to retain; kids flip back to the previous pictures in an online story – this would have been more difficult if the story was being read to them – they would have had to remember. He also explains that as adolescents or adults we have a mental sketch pad which is our working memory space. This space is overloaded with the onslaught of information from TV; Social media etc., and so our working memories cannot take that information and link it to past experiences or other knowledge. The ‘sketch pad’ is too full.

The good news is that working memory is proven to be one of the cognitive skills that can be trained and developed.

  • Tips to assist your child in developing their working memory:
  • Brain fitness games. These programs have been designed to help learners: Cogmed, and Jungle Memory2 (these are apps or computer based games)
  • Verbal repeat. Repeat a sequence of colours or objects for the child to recall. For example, you can repeat a number sequence like “1, 5, 8, 17” and ask your child what number comes after 5. Over time, the number of items can be expanded as your child improves in his or her working memory.
  • Playing chess helps the child to grow his/her memory as it requires him or her to hold all the pieces of information and to see the big picture.
  • Play card games. The old fashioned games like dominoes, go fish and even poker ensure that children remember who had which card as they learn to play strategically.
  • Read to them. Reading to your children especially without too many pictures makes children hold onto the story line in their mind’s eye.

These are fun ways to help your child develop their working memory skills!

Adelle Schwark
Speech and Language Therapist

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows : What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. W Norton & Company.
Holmes, D. J. (2012). Working Memory and Learning Difficulties. The Dyslexia Review, 7-10.