Children and young people are often told off for ‘not listening’, forgetting things or ‘daydreaming’. When I have worked with children who can appear inattentive, forgetful, unfocused and at times disobedient when they don’t follow instructions it is not uncommon for investigation and assessments to highlight working memory difficulties.
What is working memory?
Working memory lets us store information for short periods (seconds), to recall it and to use it. It has a limited capacity but allows information to be held just long enough to use it. However, we need to pay attention to what is being held in working memory because, if we are distracted for example by someone speaking to us, the dog barking or a message popping up our phones what we were trying to hold in our working memory is likely to vanish! In addition, our working memory can be quickly overloaded and we can struggle to keep ‘too much’ in our minds at any one time, be it lengthy information such as a mobile phone number or complex/demanding information that we are trying to manipulate such as size calculations. Once information has been lost from working memory it is gone for good!
Why is working memory important?
For children and young people with a small working memory capacity the classroom can be a difficult and confusing place. It can be a struggle to keep pace with teaching input or remember the instructions for a task and lots of learning activities require the use of working memory to hold some information in mind. As examples, mental maths calculations, attempting to read unfamiliar words, and writing and trying to remember the content of the sentence, attempting an unknown spelling, whilst also remembering punctuation and structure. Eek!
What do working memory difficulties look like in school and at home?
Working memory difficulties can often present as the child/young person:
Not following instructions or forgetting part of instructions.
Forgetting the content of messages
Finding it difficult to stay on task, presenting with a short attention span
Appearing as if they are not listening/paying attention
Finding it difficult to keep up with and follow teaching input
Having difficulties remembering what to do next in a task
Losing their place in tasks
Looking puzzled or dazed when presented with long instructions/much information.
I was asked for involvement for an 8 year old boy, Jai whose class teacher and family shared concerns regarding his apparent difficulties with concentration/attention, often forgetting what he is doing and apparent difficulties with comprehension/understanding what he has been asked.
I met with Jai and completed a number of assessments with him, many of which he thoroughly excelled at and which indicated that he has a significant number of strengths; at least average cognitive abilities, very good processing skills and good ability to attend to task and shift his focus. However, the assessments highlighted that Jai had significant memory difficulties; it was likely that his difficulties with memory present both in the classroom and at home as inattention and ‘incomprehension’.
What can we do? Top Tips
Use memory aids
Memory aids can be visual such as calendars/planners, wall charts/posters for example of times tables, word banks etc. Visual checklists for tasks at school and at home can be particularly helpful - teach them to make their own ‘to do’ lists/checklists.
Technology is a fantastic memory aid. For example, using smart home speakers/virtual assistant technology to set reminders or having a vibrating watch to act as a reminder. It can be particularly helpful to record reminders/steps in tasks on a recording device so that you can listen back. This is a great way to help aid memory as our own voice is said to be the most memorable.
Another useful memory aid is mnemonics, commonly used for spellings for example because ‘big elephants can always understand small elephants’ and rhymes such as ‘I before e except after c’ and music such as the alphabet song. Years and years later we can remember such memory aids.
As much as possible try to embed preferred memory aides into routines, such as making check lists - once a routine is practiced repeatedly it becomes automatic and reduces working memory demands.
Keep information short and sweet and repeat, repeat and repeat again!
By keeping information short and succinct memory demands are reduced. We can only absorb so much information at a time! So, use short sentences when giving information and when giving instructions, give a few at a time. Pause between instructions to allow the information to be processed. It can also be helpful, to cue them in with their name to ensure the are focused. Repeat and/or rephrase – it can be helpful to hear instructions/information more than once. Follow the old adage – tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.
Children/young people will also benefit from repeating back what they have just heard. So, rather than saying – do you know what you are doing? Ask them to tell you what they have to do or get them to explain to someone else.
Link new information to old
By linking new information to what we already know, it makes it easier to remember. In the classroom, teaching which connects to previous knowledge or skills is most effective. Similarly, analogies to what we already know or are interested in help us to make links and retain new information. As an example, when explaining the immune system, the analogy ‘the immune system is like a defence army’ could help link the concept to previously learnt information and mean it is more likely to be remembered.
It can be difficult thinking of analogies, so ask the child/young person how they feel the new information relates to previously learned material or a personal experience.
Thank you for reading – I hope this provides a little insight into understanding working memory and hope you find the tips helpful.
If you have concerns about a child ‘not listening’, forgetting things or appearing to daydream it may be helpful to involve an Educational Psychologist to investigate.
Do look through the list of services and get in touch for further information.
For further information do have a look at the booklet ‘Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide’ by Gathercole and Alloway which is free to download.
The BBC Radio 4 Memory Experience is also worth a look, it has some really interesting stories and tips regarding memory: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/memory/