Working memory, also known as short-term memory, is the greatest predictor of success in life and academics, according to Dr. Tracy Alloway. a psychologist and expert in the field of memory. Not IQ, not reading levels, not social competence, but our ability to manipulate new information.
Armed with an understanding of the signs indicating a weak working memory and some tools to boost performance, you will be in a better position to help your child achieve their potential.
What is Working Memory?
“You can think of working memory as the active part of your memory system. It’s like mental juggling,” says H. Lee Swanson, PhD, distinguished professor of education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. “As information comes in, you’re processing it at the same time as you store it,” he says.
We tap into our working memory when we perform routine tasks like following a recipe, recalling the name of someone we just met, and attempting to pick up those items we neglected to jot down when we go to the grocery store.
While those tasks may not seem critical to a successful life, consider the struggles you may face if your working memory was weak:
- Being on time for work
- Following a conversation
- Responding appropriately during a conflict
- Completing things you have started
- Being aware of traffic laws and situations
- Prioritizing activities
- Handling money
These tasks all have great impact on our day-to-day lives. While the strength of our working memory is not linked to IQ, it certainly does have a link to our fulfillment and frustration levels. There are many children who are not making academic progress because their working memories are overtaxed.
In the classroom, tasks like copying from a whiteboard, writing down notes as a teacher speaks, and following multi-step directions all rely on a well-oiled working memory. According to Dr. Alloway’s research, around 70 percent of children with learning difficulties in reading score low on working memory assessments. In order to comprehend what is being read, a student must use the incoming information to generate pictures in their mind, make connections to themselves as well as previous knowledge, and simultaneously continue listening if a passage of text is being read aloud.
A Simple Screening for Weak Working Memory
A weak working memory is a predictor of academic struggle. The National Center For Learning Disabilities identifies the following signs from Dr. Alloway’s Working Memory Rating Scale:
- Abandons activities before completing them
- Looks like he’s daydreaming
- Puts up a hand to answer questions, but forgets what she wanted to say
- Mixes up material inappropriately (for example, combining two sentences)
- Forgets how to continue an activity that he’s started, even though the teacher has explained the steps
- Is reserved in group activities in the classroom, rarely volunteering
- Loses her place frequently in complicated tasks
- Makes poor academic progress during the school years, particularly in the areas of reading and mathematics
- Is considered by teachers to have short attention spans and also to be easily distracted
Working Memory Training
It was a long-held belief that working memory was what researchers called a “fixed trait.” In other words, there was not much that could be done to improve a person’s working memory.
In the last decade, some exciting research has shown that the brain can change, and so can a person’s working memory. If you feel your child has a weak working memory, there are several things you can do.
Dr. Alloway’s research specifically cites a working memory training program called Jungle Memory. ADDitude, an excellent resource website for families living with attention and learning disabilities, speaks highly of Cogmed Working Memory Training. Both are computer-based training programs for a specified duration. Cogmed requires a trained provider to participate, while Jungle Memory can be accessed online. As with all therapies, they work better for some families than others, and results should not be guaranteed. When considering any type of program, Dr. Alloway gives some helpful advice on what three things to look for.
Ways You Can Help Your Child (and Your Child’s Teacher)
1) Have memory aids
- Laminate a list and attach it to the zipper of your child’s backpack or the front of their binder. On it should be all of the things they need to pack to and from school.
- Have math manipulatives and unifix cubes on hand to work out arithmetic problems.
- Check to see if there are wall charts with procedures in the classroom. If not, offer to help create them for your child’s teacher.
Note: Children with working memory challenges are less likely to use these tools on their own. It takes explicit instruction on how to use them during an activity that requires little working memory.
2) Break down tasks into small steps to reduce the memory load.
3) Ask your child to imagine a scene you describe, then have them draw out what they pictured in their head.
4) Ask your child to teach you a skill that they are learning in school. Teaching requires information recall as well as thinking about the delivery of that information.
5) Take a deep breath when your child asks you to repeat what you told him or her. They may need information repeated to them frequently.
6) Teach your child to advocate for themselves at school and with family. If they need help or something explained again – just ask!
Alloway, T. (n.d.). Research Home. Retrieved November 23, 2014, from http://tracyalloway.com/research/
Alloway, T., & Gathercole, S. (2007). Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. London: Harcourt Assessment.
Cogmed Working Memory Training | About Working Memory. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2014, from http://www.cogmed.com/about-working-memory
Morin, A. (n.d.). 8 Working Memory Boosters. Retrieved November 22, 2014, from https://www.understood.org
What Is Working Memory and Why Does It Matter? | Executive Function. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.ncld.org
What You Need to Know About Cogmed Working-Memory Training. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.additudemag.com