Signs & Symptoms

Procedural Memory

Is your child forgetting the steps to complete a task?

If your teenager is having difficulty learning to drive a car, procedural memory may be an issue. Maybe your reminded your child 100 times, “put your seatbelt on, foot on the brake, key in the ignition,” but your teen is still doing things backwards.

Your child may also have trouble following a recipe or completing homework. Some children often say, “I can’t remember what to do next.” They may need to have a single instruction provided and then reminders every two minutes until that one thing gets done.

Some children practice tying their shoes for a year and still can’t quite get it right. You may expect your child to follow the same steps and routine each morning, and he still doesn’t do it.

You call him down for breakfast, expecting him to be dressed for school, and then you find him or looking at a picture, organizing toys, or just studying his fingernails.

The morning routine may take triple the time it should. For some families, the procedure of get up, get dressed, make your bed, eat breakfast, and brush your teeth requires constant reminders, despite the fact that you’ve had the same routine for the past two years. For other children, it’s completing a multi-step math problem that is difficult.

In the classroom, a student with challenges following procedures will be easy to spot. While others have put their lunches in cubbies, gotten out writing folders and are completing the morning journal, a child with these challenges may be swinging his lunch bag and wandering around the classroom, chewing the tip of a pencil, spinning the globe, or staring out the window.

What do challenges with Procedural Memory look like?

  • Saying, “Brush my teeth, get my shoes and then what?”
  • Having major difficulties following multi-step directions?
  • Struggling to tie shoes and get dressed in the morning?
  • Not remembering the procedure to solve that long division problem?
  • Getting lost partway through a task?
  • Not doing what you asked at all?
  • Doing procedures out of order; eating breakfast with one sock on and a t-shirt from yesterday?
  • Wandering around the classroom as other students follow the morning routine?

Why is Procedural Memory happening?

Procedural memory refers to the type of long-term memory we use for remembering the tasks and activities that we do all the time, such as tying our shoes or driving a car. These procedures are things that we do over and over until they become automatic. Initially, it takes memory storage to sequentially order information and to hold onto that information cognitively (in your head) until the tasks are completed. Once those tasks become automatic, it does not take memory storage to remember how to do them. For example, as an adult you do not have to concentrate much on driving your car. If traffic is heavy or you are following a new route, then driving may require concentration; however, your typical drive to work could be done with virtually no mental effort. This reason you can drive a car without thinking much about it is because driving has become a part of your procedural memory. Children who get stuck completing a task like tying their shoes or making their bed are not able to step through the procedures automatically. For a child who cannot complete the procedure, memory for this set of steps has not become automatic. Some children need to be shown the process and need to practice the steps over and over. If a child is possibly having difficulty with procedural memory, the task is not automatic, and therefore it takes thought and effort to complete it. The best remedy for this issue is lots of repetition, patience and practice.

How can I manage Procedural Memory at home?

If the issue is learning the procedure itself, then practice, practice, practice is the best strategy. Show your child how to tie shoes, step by step. Think of a rhyme or song to carry him through the task.

If the task is cleaning a bedroom, put it to music. One song is for picking up dirty clothes, one for putting toys in containers, one for making the bed and one for putting away clean laundry.

Make the tasks concrete and systematic, and practice with your child. Have organized bins for toys and a hamper for laundry.

If attention is the issue, it will be helpful to be consistent, keep routines predictable and help your child learn and practice the sequence. Use visual chore charts, such as a morning routine poster that is in the bedroom and bathroom, and tie the completion of these charts to immediate reward.

An example of an immediate reward is “When you get your routine finished I will turn on the TV, and you can watch until it is time to get in the car.” Alternately, your child may be able to use his or her iPad in the car, provided that all of the morning tasks are done.

Provide reminders and be sure your child is listening. See that you have eye contact, and have him or her repeat the task so you know you have his full attention.

If the issue is with motor planning or physically completing a task, your child may need therapy. Physical Therapy is often required for gross motor movement like running and climbing.

Occupational Therapy can help for tasks like tying shoes, writing and completing fine motor tasks. Professionals cite interventions for error-free learning, physical guidance, and hand-over-hand procedures. Essentially, a therapist assists a child in completing the task, and with repeated practice this task becomes automatic [1].

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Procedural Memory?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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