Signs & Symptoms

Working Memory

Is your child not remembering information long enough to use it?

Some children seem to have trouble remembering information and then doing something with it. They might have trouble with multi-step directions. They might struggle with solving problems if the steps aren’t written down. It may be that your child cannot hold a number of different facts in his head while simultaneously working through steps to solve a problem.

Some examples of challenges of this nature include:

  • Trying to copy information from the board
  • Following multi-step directions
  • Listening to the teacher talk about today’s schedule
  • Completing assignments in the correct order
  • Taking random numbers and putting them in sequential order
  • Hearing a word problem
  • Extracting the important data and performing mental calculations

When children hear information and manipulate it in their heads to use it right away, they are utilizing a memory process called working memory. A number of reasons can explain why challenges with working memory occur, and these will be discussed below in the clinical section.

A classic working memory task is the ‘old school’ challenge of recalling a phone number. Those of us who are now adults remember looking up a phone number in the phone book, holding the 7 digits in our heads and then dialing them on the rotary phone. This task is a classic example of working memory.

Children don’t need to do this task today, but they might have to remember math problems in their heads while they solve them or remember their schedule and figure out what time reading will be held. The time between hearing the information and either writing it down or actually carrying out the task relies on working memory.

Holding information in one’s head while performing some manipulation of the information is a simple way to think of working memory.

Working memory deficits are common in children, particularly those with slow processing speed or with attention deficits. It is important to keep in mind that needing to write things down does not necessarily mean a child has a clinically significant deficit.

If you see challenges with working memory impacting your child’s grades in school or decreasing his or her confidence, it is important to look into it further.

What do challenges with Working Memory look like?

  • Forgetting the next steps when building a model airplane?
  • Not seeming to listen to directions?
  • Saying, “I can’t do math in my head; I have to write it down to solve it?
  • Asking you to repeat yourself a lot?
  • Having trouble following the instructions to build a model?
  • Needing to use notes, reminders, calendars, and Post-its?
  • Finding visual reminders and checklists very helpful or necessary?
  • Performing well on written work but having difficulty solving multi-step problems or conducting science experiments?

Why is Working Memory happening?

The ability to recall, manipulate and use information is called working memory. Working memory can be impacted by challenges with processing information or challenges with attention. Research shows that working memory is highly related to attention and to executive functions that include our ability to plan and organize information. Working memory is “the shortest duration of information storage” and refers to the ability to hold things in memory for a short amount of time, perhaps 20 to 30 seconds, and to act on that information. Working memory is an important part of our ability to inhibit a response and to sustain attention. Intact working memory will allow a child to hold numbers in his head long enough to solve the math problem.  The underlying problem when your child cannot remember information long enough to use it is likely to involve organization, or planning or attention. 

  • Organization is a part of executive functioning and refers to the ability to keep track of a number of different things and to remain organized, not forgetting to complete a task. 
  • Planning is also a part of executive functioning and refers to the ability to plan out a series and sequence of moves one step at a time. For example, “I need to get my math homework, my math book, my planner, and then make sure to write down my assignments. I need to put those all into my backpack.” 
  • Attention means the ability to focus long enough to complete a task or activity without becoming distracted by other things going on around you.

Challenges with any of the above will very likely interfere with your child’s ability to follow directions at home and in school.

How can I manage Working Memory at home?

If your child has challenges with working memory, the following strategies may help.

Use visuals. Try graphic organizers, outlines and checklists.

Write it down. Have your child write things down and work problems on paper instead of trying to solve them in his or her head. Some children who struggle with working memory may be very good at math when they can see the problem and have the details in front of them.

Use number models and pictures. Having the child write a number model and draw a picture of the problem can help a great deal.

Use to do lists and handwritten planners. Many people struggle to remember. Adults will often say, “I need to write that down in my planner, or I will forget.”

Know thyself. One important thing you can do as a parent is to teach your children to recognize their own needs, including their learning strengths and weaknesses. Many children, particularly those with ADHD or learning problems, may try to do work and solve problems in their heads. This is the path of least resistance but is not the best strategy.

Metacognition refers to being able to think about your own learning processes [5]. If your child struggles with metacognition, he or she will need to get used to writing things down and using scratch paper, rather than relying on his memory.

Set up for success. Make sure your child is studying at a desk, far away from the television or distracting siblings. Try working in 30 minute segments with a short stretch or snack break in between. Require your child to first working out problems on scratch paper before finalizing answers, and review work with an adult for accuracy and completion.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Working 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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