Did you know that a child’s working memory has been shown to be able to predict his or her performance in school1? Typically, a child with a low working memory tends to fare badly in math. He or she is also likely to be labelled as inattentive or having trouble following instructions/directions.
Fortunately, as a parent, there are exercises that you can leverage on to improve your child’s working memory and help them enjoy learning. In this article, we’ll show you how to:
- Identify in your child the symptoms of a limited working memory
- Identify different types of poor working memory
- Assess the size of your child’s working memory with a special test
- Understand how a poor working memory impacts your child’s learning
- Use various strategies and activities to improve your child’s working memory
What is Working Memory and How Do We Use It?
A person’s working memory can be compared to the RAM of a computer. Things are stored in this part of the brain temporarily to process certain outcomes. When there is insufficient memory, the amount of information that can be stored is limited and this causes problems during the computation stage.
Some symptoms of a child suffering from limited working memory:
- Forgetting instructions that are longer than usual
- Inability to recall all the numbers in a math question, resulting in calculation errors
- Seemingly unable to pay attention
- Seemingly easily distracted
What Are the Different Types of Poor Working Memory Deficits?
According to the literature, there are different types of poor working memory. You should first identify your child’s problem before selecting the strategies to be used:
- Auditory/verbal working memory: some children are unable to store information that is communicated through verbal means. This translates to an inability to follow verbal instructions, or signs of forgetfulness.
- Visual working memory: some kids cannot remember all the information in the text they read. This results in doing poorly in tests and exams. (Read on to learn how a poor working memory impacts your child’s learning)
Test Your Child’s Working Memory
Here is a simple test that you can conduct to test the working memory of a child aged 4-7. Place various colored pencils, erasers, and cups on a table. Then give your child the following instructions (you can change the colours or objects to suit):
“Pick up the blue pencil, then the pink eraser, and put them in the red cup.”
This test is designed to contain multiple dimensions including colors and objects, to determine how many pieces of information your child’s working memory can absorb. Once the test has been performed, the following is a guide on how much ‘space’ your child has in his/her working memory.
- Gets everything correct: fantastic working memory
- Gets 1 item wrong: above average working memory
- Gets 2 items wrong: average or slightly below average
- Gets all items wrong: signals a problem with working memory that needs to be addressed
How Does a Poor Working Memory Impact A Child’s Learning?
Below is how a child with poor working memory struggles with what is commonly taught in the classroom.
- Composition for English / 2nd language: the child may not remember what he or she wants to say, resulting in poorly structured or incomplete sentences.
- Comprehension for English / 2nd language: the child cannot process all the information in a long story. They may not get the gist of a passage and cannot answer the subsequent questions.
- Math: the child cannot hold all the numbers in his/her head, resulting in miscalculations
When a child suffers from poor working memory, he or she will have problems coping with information even though they can remember other things. As a parent, it is important to understand this so as not to reprimand your child for something over which he or she has no control.
How to Improve Working Memory
The following techniques are taken from research proven to be effective at improving a child’s working memory.
- Brain fitness games. There is a whole industry dedicated to developing “brain training” programmes. Not all have benefits to a child with poor working memory, but these three seem to be the most effectivet: MindSparke, Cogmed, and Jungle Memory2.
- Verbal repeat involves repeating a sequence of colors 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.3
- Playing chess helps the child to expand on his memory as it requires him or her to hold all the pieces of information and to see the overall picture.
- Encourage the child to ask for information he or she has forgotten.
If you have any recommended techniques for improving working memory, or have thoughts on handling children with low working memory? Share them in the comments.
1. 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.
2. Alloway, T. P. & Alloway, R. G. (2008). Jungle Memory Training Program (Memosyne Ltd, UK).
3. Verhaeghen, P., Cerella, J., and Basak, C. (2004). A working memory workout: how to expand the focus of serial attention from one to four items in 10 hours or less. J. Exp. Psychol, Learning, Memory and Cognition. 30 (6): 1322-1337.