It happened, AGAIN. I went to the supermarket after work to get some bread. I spent over $100 on groceries, loaded them into the car and then as I was about to get into the driver’s seat, I remembered the forgotten bread. How could I forget my sole reason for going to the grocery store on a dark, wet evening?
Working memory is our ability to hold, use, and manipulate information in our mind for brief intervals of between10 to15 seconds. Things like shopping lists, multi-step directions, or (remember when this was necessary?) someone’s phone number, are all executive function skills that our working memory performs. Our working memory is central to cognitive functioning skills. One thing we know is that like a Chromebook, our working memory has limited capacity to hold onto information before it is replaced by other information. In order to hold onto information in our working memory, we have to make the conscious decision to keep it there. Neuroscientists have determined that our working memory can only hold a certain amount of information at a time and for a very limited amount of time. Our working memory capacity can vary depending on the type of information we are trying to remember and how the information is chunked in our brain as we try to remember it. I love the trivia fact that the reason why our phone numbers have 7 digits has to do with average number of digits most people can hold in their working memory at once.
Many school psychologists believe that an intact working memory is critical for allowing other skills to develop. It incorporates the ability to draw upon past learning experiences to apply to a situation at hand or to project into the future. For example, when we review cognitive testing, a lower score in the area of working memory can explain why a young student may struggle to decode unfamiliar words. Often the act of breaking down a word, sounding it out and then blending the sounds together can cause the reader to forget the first sounds of the word. Has your child ever got off the phone with someone she just spoke with and completely forget what the message was that she needed to relay? Long division and working memory deficits are not compatible unless there are supports in place.
Think about how frustrating it is for children (or adults) who struggle with working memory deficits. A child goes upstairs to get her shoes and socks on, brush her teeth, and grab her reading book. She comes down with her socks on and reading book. She is sent back upstairs by a frustrated parent because she didn’t follow directions and now the family is running late. She knows she needs to remember something, but can’t because the information has gone out of her working memory.
How can we help the child with working memory deficits build this critical skill? Teach your child to repeat or even sing the instructions to herself to put the information into their auditory memory. Model chunking the information for them. Instead of remembering individual digits 7-7-8-8-1-5-0, teach them to remember 778, 81, 50. Consider the idea of “off-loading” so the child doesn’t have to hold as much in his working memory. Teach your child to use agenda books and calendars, make “to do” lists (keep that white board displayed prominently in your kitchen) and have your older children use their phones as assistive technology tools for prompting. There are great apps such as Todoist and BugMe! that can be helpful.
Children develop their working memory from infancy until about late adolescence when it peaks. A young child may be able to hold onto one step directions in her mind while a middle school student will need to remember the expectations of multiple teachers.With repeated rehearsal, visualization, and active association to past experiences, over time a child with working memory deficits will learn ways to hold on more efficiently to information. The size of their storage capacity, may not change. However, like the Chromebook, there are many different ways to extend its capacity to get things done. There is limited storage capacity but the platform exists to get things into our longer term memory.
Meg Bamford is the Head of Radcliffe Creek School in Chestertown