You’re off to the shops and you tell yourself, “Don’t forget to buy…..”, and of course you forget because it wasn’t written down on your list. Or you can’t recall the name of the person who has just been introduced to you (my Achilles Heel!), or, when you need to remember your child’s cellphone number you can’t, because you never actually dial it – you use your phone’s memory for that, not your own. These are your experiences of the limitations of working memory.
For a child, working memory is the key to learning and following instructions, and both therapists and teachers are noticing that children’s working memory skills are declining at an alarming rate. Some of the causes being cited include:
- Playing fewer real games and engaging with more on-screen activities that continually provide visual and verbal prompts which means children don’t have to pay as much active attention in order to remember.
- Too many distractions. There is so much on offer and children have too many choices that distract them from completing the task at hand, from channel surfing on TV to flicking from one game to another on a digital device.
- Emotional stress and anxiety about life, often caused by family trauma such as divorce, long-term illness of a family member, financial stress etc, that distracts them from the work or instruction at hand.
Poor working memory affects things such as a child’s ability to follow instructions in class (if they can’t, they fall behind); their ability to do dictation (having to remember what is being read and then writing it down while also remembering how to form the individual words); their ability to do times tables; and reading fluency, among others.
At home, you give children instructions such as, “Go down to your room and pack your books, your netball kit and your ball.” When they reach their room they have to access the memory of what you said and then play it back immediately in order to follow through with the task. Working memory, in essence, is about grabbing onto, and holding onto, incoming information for long enough for it to be useful in the short term.
If working memory is weak children will have less material to work with, learning will be more difficult, information recall will be challenging and learning gaps may develop. Help your children strengthen this key to learning and to life by increasing the stickiness of their working memory. You might as well improve the stickiness of yours at the same time too.
For ages 5 – 18 years
I have adapted some useful working memory boosters from Amanda Morin, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education:
- Playing good old card games because you have to remember the rules of the game at the same time as remembering the cards you have played and those that have been played by others.
- Recite letters and numbers on car number plates, but don’t stop there. Now say them backwards.
- Get your child to teach you after they have been studying. This is a great way to exercise working memory and it was a particularly useful studying method for my eldest son for swot subjects. If he could make me understand, I knew he understood.
- Teach visualisation skills. If you ask your child to lay the table, take a moment to get him/her to visualise what it needs to look like before they begin.
- Number the instructions you give your kids. Eg. There are three things you need to pack…., or there are four things you need to buy at the shops…..
Creative parenting expert, inspirational speaker and co-author of Tech-Savvy Parenting (Bookstorm, 2014), Future-proof Your Child (Penguin, 2008), and Easy Answers to Awkward Questions (Metz Press, 2009)