Think about the series of commands you might give your child on a school night: “It’s time for bed! Put away your toys, change into your PJs, and brush your teeth!” Maybe your child put away his toys and got into his PJs, but forgot to brush his teeth. If your child frequently loses track of tasks like these, it’s possible he may struggle with working memory.
Working memory is one of the brain’s “executive functions,” which are mental skills we use to prioritize and accomplish tasks. Defined simply, it’s the ability to keep in mind the information we need to complete a plan, project, or problem. For example, if you need to make a phone call and someone tells you the numbers out loud, your working memory will temporarily store those numbers until you actually dial them.
Psychologists often describe working memory as a “mental workspace” where we store relevant information during activities. Imagine a desk. There is only so much space on a desk to place everything you need to finish a task. Similarly, working memory has finite capacity for storing information, and some people’s “desks” are smaller than others’.
Every single day, we use working memory to go about our lives. From remembering our shopping list to tidying the house, working memory helps us do what we set out to do, in the order that we set out to do it.
One of the easiest ways to spot a struggle with working memory is when someone has a hard time following directions. “For example, if you ask a child to clear his plate from the table, scrape off the table scraps, and put his plate into the dishwasher, he may never get past clearing the plate,” says Dr. Lindy Blazek, learning specialist and Dean of Academic Affairs at Skyuka Hall, an independent school serving Chattanooga’s students with learning differences. “He will be so focused on that task that he cannot mentally go back and recall what comes next.”
In the classroom, struggles with working memory may manifest as trouble following directions, comprehending reading material, writing in an analytical way, or solving complex math problems. Any task that requires a child to hold data in his mind, while manipulating it for answers, can present a challenge.
The rate at which material is taught in a traditional classroom, and the expected rate of retention, is geared towards students with average processing speed and no attention or memory issues. So for children with limited working memory, traditional learning methods can feel particularly time-consuming and mentally draining. Over time, this may increase the student’s stress and frustration, as well as cause their self-esteem to decline.
Unfortunately, parents and teachers often interpret lapses in working memory as poor behavior. Meanwhile, the child who fails the task may grow frustrated and embarrassed. Criticized for his “insubordinate” or “lazy” behavior, he may begin to disengage from the learning process altogether.
Like working memory, attention is another important executive function of the brain. To continue the desk analogy, attention is the funnel that carries information to the cognitive workspace where working memory makes sense of it. Once the brain processes the information, it either discards it or sends it to long-term memory.
Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, often struggle with working memory, because new information must compete with distractions. Where another child might have no trouble focusing on a lesson, a child with ADHD must work hard to block out competing stimuli. They may struggle to recall or process information because it never funneled to their working memory in the first place.
Excerpted from “What Every Parent Should Know About Working Memory” in HealthScope health and wellness magazine. Read the full article to learn more about how you can support a child who struggles with working memory.