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Improving Your Child’s Working Memory

elephant reading and scratching his head.

Have you ever been introduced to someone only to realize five minutes later that you can’t recall her name?

Or maybe you’ve experienced this one: you suddenly remember that you need to add something to your shopping list, but by the time you find a pen, you can’t remember what you were going to write.

Have you ever been frustrated by your child’s inability to remember a short list of tasks you’ve asked him to accomplish?

The examples above demonstrate the potential shortcomings of the working memory. Inevitably, we all face these issues from time to time. But for a child with more significant memory challenges, these issues can have a dramatic impact on the learning process. Is there hope? YES! But let’s back up to consider several important questions.

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory is the ability to hold information in your brain for a short period of time while you work with or manipulate the information. Working memory is critical for learning to read and spell.

child silhouette with brain

For example:

  • It helps you sound out unfamiliar words.
  • It helps you keep your place in the text, allowing you to look away from the page yet still find your place again.
  • It helps you remember the words you just read as you finish the sentence or paragraph, enabling better comprehension.
  • It makes it possible for you to compose a cohesive paragraph, writing down one sentence while you think of the next.

Working memory is one of the most important indicators of how easily a child can learn. In fact, research has shown that working memory is actually a much better indicator than an IQ score of how easily a person can learn.

Signs Your Child Has Poor Working Memory

A child with poor working memory will struggle with tasks that require him to hold some information in his mind (such as a dictated sentence) while doing something else that is challenging to him (such as spelling the words). Without some adaptations, he may fail to complete the task because crucial information (in this case, the remainder of the sentence) is dropped from the child’s memory and is no longer available to him. It may appear that the child is not paying attention, but in reality, he has simply forgotten what he is supposed to do.

In addition, a child with poor working memory may have one or more of the following problems.

  • He may have difficulty paying attention to lessons.
  • He may seem uncooperative during learning activities.
  • He may fail to comprehend what he is reading.
  • He can’t follow a string of instructions.
  • He “spaces out” during lessons.
  • He seems forgetful.
  • He often misplaces things.
  • He struggles to complete multistep activities.
  • He often forgets what he was going to say.

6 Ways to Build Your Child’s Working Memory

As you implement the six ideas below, you will begin to see improvement in your child’s working memory.

  1. Avoid information overload. When too much information is presented in a lesson, your child’s working memory becomes overloaded.
  2. Eliminate distractions. When your child is working, try to reduce distractions such as TV or radio in the background, siblings or classmates talking, and toys or other interesting activities nearby.
  3. Make sure your child is comfortable during lessons. Physical stress (from things like headaches, an uncomfortable chair, hunger, being too hot or too cold, and eye strain due to vision issues or from facing a bright window) can have a negative effect on working memory.
  4. Read aloud every day for at least 20 minutes. When you read aloud, your child has to recall what you just read and anticipate what is coming next. All the while, he is interpreting the words and comprehending the story.
  5. Do motivating activities with your child that require following instructions, such as crafts or recipes. He should read one or two simple steps and then complete them. (Depending on your child’s reading level, either you can read the instructions or he can.) This will exercise and stretch your child’s working memory.
  6. Play games that build memory skills. Concentration-style and matching games are a great option. Hedbanz is another great memory-building game the whole family will enjoy playing together.

And above all, have patience! This might be the hardest part! Be encouraging, and keep emotional stress to a minimum. If your child is worried about performing properly or disappointing you, that just adds another layer of stress that taxes working memory even more.

AAR and AAS Work Well for Kids with Working Memory Challenges

All learning involves working memory, and I made sure that the lessons in our programs reduce unnecessary load on the working memory.

  • Lessons are short and focused on just one concept at a time.
  • When there are activities involved, we give only one or two instructions at a time, and the scripted verbal instructions are easy to understand.
  • The lessons follow the same routine each day. This lessens the demand on working memory because the student knows what to expect, making it easier to focus on the lesson.
  • The letter tiles are color coded, giving the students visual cues as to what category they belong to on the magnet board.

  • Improving Working Memory - Memory Series #5 from All About Learning Press
  • With our mastery-based program, we make sure that students understand the basics before asking them to move on to a more complex task. For example, before asking a student to comprehend the sentence The hawk sat on her nest, we make sure that he is able to easily decode the word hawk. Because the child has already mastered the sounds of the phonogram AW, his working memory is freed up to work on comprehension.
  • Crucial information is reviewed frequently. This pushes the information into long-term memory, freeing up working memory space.

An effective working memory is a necessary part of the learning process. But the good news is you can help your child strengthen his working memory! With a bit of extra effort, you and your child will see big rewards!

Additional Help for Your Child’s Memory

Download my free e-book, “Help Your Child’s Memory,” to learn more techniques to help strengthen your child’s memory and achieve learning that really sticks.

Pages from "Help Your Child's Memory" e-book

In this e-book, you will discover…

  • Why information goes right over your child’s head … and what to do about it
  • How the “Funnel Concept” can improve your teaching and result in long-term learning
  • Schemas—what they are and how they help improve memory
  • What “Simultaneous Multisensory Instruction” is, and why it is such a powerful teaching method
  • Six things you can do today to improve your child’s working memory

Photo credit: Rachel Neumann

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JAMIE RUELAS

says:

i am a mother of a 4 y.o boy and im so stressed about my son and trying to teach him at home. can you point me in the right direction as to have my son take any comprehensive tests to see what he knows?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Jamie,
I think you will find starting with our Reading Readiness: The Top 5 Skills blog post a great place to start with a 4-year-old. Let me know if you need anything else.

Emily

says:

This was really helpful! Thanks!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are very welcome, Emily! 😊

Alma

says:

The tips you sent out have made a huge difference in my approach to homeschool child that needs kinesthetic teaching

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so pleased to hear this, Alma!

Helen Miller

says:

Looking forward to the newsletter.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Helen,
Let me know if you have not received a welcome to the newsletter email by now. It will contain free downloads and links for you.

Kristin

says:

I’ll be checking out the e-book. I may be tutoring a few kids this summer that appear to have some working memory deficiencies, likely due to screen over use. Thanks for always having the information I need!

Mireille

says:

Hi Kristen, I am a parent of 3. You left an interesting comment. What do you mean by screen over use?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Kristin. Let me know if you have any questions or need anything.

katie

says:

what a great post, thank you for all of the info!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re so welcome, Katie. Let me know if you need anything!

Agatha

says:

This is really helpful.Thank you.
.

Frances Horn

says:

I wish I knew this many many years ago and my teachers and my parents would have know this too. Because I would have had a PhD after my name.

Kate

says:

Do you have any suggestions of things to avoid because they harm or weaken working memory? Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Kate,
Good question. There is research suggesting that electronics, such as phones and tablets, have detrimental effects on working memory and attention span. It may be best to limit the use of them and focus on the tips outlined in this blog post to improve working memory.

Mary

says:

My son is in 6th grade, what can I do to help him with working memory?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Mary,
The tips and ideas in this blog post and in the “Help Your Child’s Memory” report at the bottom of this blog post will help with any age, even adults. In addition, seek out activities for your son that require attention and working memory and limit ones that cause distraction. Research suggests that electronics, such as phones and tablets, may have a detrimental effect on working memory and attention span. In contrast, listening to audiobooks and playing board games and card games help to build working memory and attention span.

In areas of academics where working memory is a problem for your son, aim to balance between stretching his working memory but still allowing success. For example, writing dictation is often an area students with working memory issues have trouble with. They struggle to remember a sentence long enough to write it down after hearing it just once. To build working memory, we would recommend starting with dictation of phrases or short sentences of a length that the student can successfully write most of the time and then slowly increasing the length and complexity of the dictation over time. Basically, you can think of it as a weak muscle that needs regular work and slowly increasing difficulty in order to build more and more strength.

Please let me know if you have questions or more specific concerns.

Bethani L

says:

Thank you so much for this information!! Very helpful!!

Kimberly

says:

Thank you for this article. My 6 year old son used another curriculum during our first year of homeschool (we are thinking of switching). He is knowledgeable in his phonograms, blends, etc. but struggles with working memory when sounding out words. This results in frustration with fluency and comprehension. This is a good reminder to make his environment comfortable and make sure his needs are met before working on a challenging task.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Kimberly,
There is so much that goes into learning, isn’t there?

You may find this article on Helping Kids Sound Out Words helpful. It shows a cumulative blending step that often helps children. Sometimes children that have trouble with learning how to sound words out are having trouble because they aren’t strong in phonological awareness skills. Our blog post Fun Ways to Develop Phonological Awareness has games and activities to build these skills in fun ways. Let me know how it goes.

Laura

says:

my daughter still struggles with this and shes going into 8th grade. We do the list at the bottom every week since she was 4. Now she feels like she has to do everything in 2s? Like reread a sentence after she just read it or if watching tv she will rewind to rewatch what she just watched. she never use to do that this is new any ideas what could be going on?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Laura,
I’m sorry, but I don’t have an idea as to why a student would start repeating sentences and even scenes in a TV show like this. I would recommend starting by asking her why she does this and how it helps her. She might be able to give some insights that direct you to the root cause. Maybe it is a physical problem, like needing to go over things twice because she has a vision problem. Maybe she is having trouble understanding because of a learning disability. There could be other possible causes as well.

I do think following up on this with her doctor, school, or some other assessment will be important. I’m sorry I can’t help.

Emily Reynolds

says:

So interesting! This was helpful both for me and my daughter!

Alena

says:

Great information, made me retching some ot my approaches. Thank you.

Jill

says:

I really need to work on this with my daughter.

Lindsey

says:

As the mother of a child who struggles with working memory, this information was very helpful and can easily be implemented in the home. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are so welcome, Lindsey! If you ever have any questions or need help helping your child, just let me know.

Alyssa

says:

These are great ideas and I will likely use some of them for myself ;-)

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great idea, Alyssa! I think many of us would be helped by applying some of these tips.

Krystal

says:

Great Information!

Jess

says:

Thanks for the helpful information on memory. I think I’ll use some of the tips on myself too.

Amber

says:

Wonderful info.

Sara R

says:

We like AAL’s approach to everything. So thorough.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Sara!

Nadiuska

says:

Can’t wait to start practicing these strategies. Thank you.

Tavia

says:

Thanks, interesting info.

Cindy

says:

Very informative. I’ve seen all of these at different times in each of my kids. Thank you for the tips on helping improve memory!

maria

says:

Love these resources on reading.. this is one memory obstacle Ive been going through with my 8 yr old.

Omi Boone

says:

Thank you for such thorough information. It is so important to understand what is going on and how to address it. I know my daughter is smart and she does too. It’s important that she be able to express it in a way that others realize so she can fully participate.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are welcome, Omi, and so correct. It is very important to understand what is going on with your children so we can address it most effectively.

Lakshminarayanan

says:

Really useful tips. Let me try it out

Kathryn

says:

Great information! Thank you for all your help with making learning more fun!

Rhiannon

says:

Great read. So many of my students struggle with working memory.

Jasmyne

says:

Great information!!

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