Working Memory in Kids – Meaning, Importance and Ways to Improve

Working Memory in Kids

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Working memory is a person’s ability to hold information in the mind while performing a complex task. The more working memory the person the faster they can process information and solve complex problems. Children have much smaller working memory capacities when compared to adults and as they grow some develop special challenges with it. How can you tell if your child is struggling with a working memory problem and what is at stake? Continue reading for all you need to know.

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory is our brain’s ability to store information for a short span so that the information can be used to perform an activity.  This temporary storage which is similar to the RAM of a computer is essential for our everyday functioning during tasks such as having a conversation, following instructions, reading and comprehension, listening, etc. Some of the more specific examples where working memory is used involve doing arithmetic in the mind like adding two numbers, remembering a list of grocery items or recalling people or seating arrangements after a brief look at the tables at a dinner party.

Working memory is the workspace where we can crunch numbers and manipulate information to perform complex tasks. That is why people with higher working memory appear to be smarter and the children generally do well in class. Their large memory capacities allow them to juggle chunks of data and process them more quickly to accomplish a task at hand. It is also seen that children who have above average working memories also show higher achievement in areas such as mathematics and language. Because of this, these people also excel at language skills as they are able to better keep track of information or ideas presented in complex sentences or paragraphs.

Why Is Working Memory Important for Kids?

Working memory is essential for children to integrate new information they are learning with their existing knowledge in their long term memory. As they hear or see new information, their working memory kicks in to keep the information active so that it can be organized and used to solve a problem or complete a task at hand. Having a good working memory makes it easier for them to build knowledge and skills with less effort and minimizes the thought and attention needed to be given to the same task at every step.

While day-to-day tasks are one part of why working memory is important, it is also critical for academic performance, especially in math and language. Children will need a good working memory to perform basic arithmetic calculations in the head or to remember numbers in the intermediate steps. When it comes to language, it plays a major role in reading and comprehension. Young children have to do quite a bit of tasking in their minds when they are expected to read and understand a sentence. They need to be able to recognize words and remember the sequence of the words and string them together to extract a meaning. They should also be able to recognize the relationship between the words, for example, “The dog bit the man” is different from “The man bit the dog”.

Working memory helps children remember the meaning of words they ready while they decode what the rest means. Hence while they are learning to read children often find it difficult to comprehend long sentences. As they continue reading the rest of the sentence though could forget what they read in the beginning. This difficulty in decoding is also seen in adults who are told to comprehend lengthy sentences that contain highly technical information presented in the form of very specialized words. On the other hand, having a larger vocabulary and being presented with short sentences makes it easier to grasp what is being said.

Finally, being able to remember sentences is only one aspect of comprehension and fluency. Children need to be able to remember what was said in the beginning of the paragraph and connect every bit of information presented by the time they reach the end of the paragraph. Children with lesser working memory will have difficulty with comprehension as they cannot store enough information in the mind long enough to understand what they have just read.

For What Tasks Working Memory Is Used

Working memory is used for a number of essential tasks such as:

  • Having a conversation with people and responding appropriately when asked a question.
  • Carrying out instructions that are presented in a sequential format.
  • Reading new words and understanding the meaning of new words.
  • Paraphrasing spoken information from one person to the other or repeating information that was heard or read in written or spoken form.
  • Answering questions in class or remembering how to respond or what to respond when it is your turn to speak in class or a group.
  • Organization of everyday activities such as getting up, getting ready for school and packing for school according to the day’s schedule.
  • Reading books, long sentences or any written instruction.
  • Doing math problems in the head such as addition or subtraction.

How One Can Tell If a Child Has Working Memory Difficulties

While the reason for what causes working memory problems is varied, there are a number of identifiable signs that parents can look for. They are as follows:

  • The child has difficulty with basic organization or following/completing a given task that has sequential steps in it. They often lose their way in between or stop because they don’t know what to do next.
  • When presented with demanding activities, they often miss comprehending details or wholly forget chinks of instructions. They would fail to keep track of themselves.
  • Children often make mistakes while counting or writing in the classroom.
  • They are unable to correct their classroom work.
  • If they are not interested in the activity, they get easily distracted or do other things.
  • The children find it hard to wait for their turn and forget what to say or do when they are called upon.
  • Their organizational skills are very poor. They cannot carry their books or activity sets as per the schedule for the day. They often lose their belongings and forget steps when presented with sequential activities.
  • Their academic performance is consistently poor from the beginning and they below average to average language skills.
  • They find it difficult to read and struggle with keeping track of their place in the middle of sentences of paragraphs. They are unable to pick up on the contextual cues to predict consequent words when they are reading. They also struggle with the sounds of words and breaking it down for reading or they are unable to blend the sounds of words when taught to do so.
  • Their mathematical skills are poor and find it difficult to do simple arithmetic problems in their head.
  • They find it difficult to solve complex problems.
  • Their progress is very slow despite lots of effort put into learning. It is not that they are not putting longer hours but they are unable to retain information to learn efficiently.
  • They often cannot do their work independently and rely on a neighbor or friend for help with their work or to keep up with the task at hand.

Does Working Memory Develop as the Child Gets Older?

Yes, working memory in most children starts to improve around the age of 6 years as their brain continues to develop. Working memory is heavily dependent on the region of the brain called the frontal lobes which continue to develop as children get older. Working memory tests administered to people across ages should that there is a steady improvement and the adults perform twice as well as children. For example, in a working memory test that tests the ability to remember objects briefly presented in a visual array, grownups can recall 3 or 4 objects while children around the age of five can only remember half as many.

How to Improve Working Memory in Kids

Here are the methods to increase the working memory of kids:

How to Improve Working Memory at Home

Here are some methods and activities to increase working memory when your child is at home:

  • Assign a place for your child to put their important stuff so they would not forget it. Start with things like house keys, sports equipment, wallet and other items that are easily misplaced. To reinforce the habit set up a system of rewards and penalties. As soon as they return from school, their first task should be to keep things where they belong.
  • Use a reminder checklist for school so they know what to take with them the next day. The checklist is to be prepared the previous night and monitor them as they tick through their list and add items to the backpack. When possible, ask them to mentally recall the list and tell it to you and try to organize without it.
  • Lead by example. Make and use a “To-Do” list yourself on a daily basis so that they can watch you and form a habit from their childhood. Before they can commit things to their short memory and repeat mistakes, they could use To-Do lists to get things right and boost their self-confidence.
  • Brainstorm with your children about how you could work together to improve their working memory. Use every tool possible from writing on the palm to using stick notes, pocket diaries, smartphone reminders and even ask their friends with good memories to prompt them.
  • Consult a speech therapist to assess their language and rule out other possibilities of conditions associated with speech and language. You can then begin to look into their working memory.
  • Structure their environment such that there is less stress on their working memories. Break large tasks into smaller manageable chunks and offer information in a simplified way. You can also slow down the pace of activities and teach them strategies to cope with their working memory insufficiencies.
  • Regularly give them tasks that strengthen working memory without stressing them too much. Although there is much to be discovered scientifically in this approach, some progress is seen with children who are trained in it.

How to Improve Working Memory at School

Here are some methods and working memory activities for kids to help them out at school:

  • Make instructions clearly visible for the children so that they are reminded of them often. For example, write homework assignments in writing on the blackboard at a specific place every day. Even if the children forget what was said, they can be taught to look at the section of the board.
  • Ask the children to repeat instructions that you have just given to ensure that they have heard/understood what has been said. Encourage them to write down important notes, announcements or homework in a dedicated notebook.
  • Repeat new activities more than twice to ensure the grasp of all the steps and processes. This is because children with poor working memories need more repetitions to grasp the same compared to others. Even if they miss the first time, they can fill in the gaps with a subsequent repetition.
  • Make eye contact with the child while handing down an assignment or giving specific instruction. Speak slowly and give the information in small bits that they can grasp and ask them to repeat it at the end to strengthen their verbal working memory.
  • Make the class highly interactive and involve children with weaker working memories to become a part of something important. For example, in a math class, you could encourage them to volunteer and share all the material that they have learnt for the day. Such repetition will form strong anchor points for the mind.
  • Use unconventional strategies to teach by presenting information in a different way than the usual lecture. You could include a game or a physical activity as part of the lesson such that their memory is firmly made.
  • For children who are anxious because of their poor working memories, you could make the atmosphere more relaxing and ask them to breathe slowly and calmly before they are asked to repeat something.
  • Limit distractions and outside noise in the classroom and encourage them to visualize what they are hearing to improve their grasping and retention.

What If Working Memory Difficulties Are Left Untreated?

If poor working memory in a child is left untreated it could lead to difficulties with other areas such as:

  • Developing verbal and literacy skills such as reading and writing.
  • Poor performance in mathematics and basic calculations in real life.
  • Completing higher grades in school or attending college.
  • Keeping up with their peers in school. They lose confidence and become isolated when they are unable to progress at the same rate.
  • Ability to reach full academic potential in school or college.

Working memory develops steadily in all children as they get older. Children who show less working memory at a young age doesn’t necessarily have a problem. However, when you begin to notice many, if not all the signs of a working memory problem, you will have to consult a speech therapist or a psychologist.

Also Read: 

Ways to Improve Memory Power in Children
Short-term Memory Loss in Children
Medulloblastoma in Children

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