Our ability to work with information or 0ur working memory influences everything that we do. Working memory is our ability to store information temporarily while our brain is busy with a different task. We use our working memory to learn language, solve problems, and complete countless other tasks. Our capacity for working memory is limited and if we break our attention or overload the memory system, we can lose some of the information stored there.
There are three types of memory. Working, short-term and long-term memory all play important roles in remembering, learning and creating. Without memory human progress would not exist. Short-term memory differs from long term in two major ways. Short term memories do not last long and there is limited capacity to store information there. Long term, however can store vast amounts of information and is permanent. Short-term memory is stored in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and once it is consolidated (often during sleep) it is carried to the hippocampus. This transfer takes place with repetition and review. The more something is repeated, the more connections the brain makes and the pathways become stronger.
Working memory allows children to keep more than one direction in their mind to carry out the task. It also helps to remember steps needed to solve a problem or an equation. It allows children to keep some information in mind while processing other information. We use it to remember telephone numbers or PINs, calculating a bill, retrieve an unfamiliar name of a new person we just met and measuring and combining ingredients.
There are limits to working memory including: getting distracted, trying to hold too much information at one time, and how difficult the task and directions are. We each have our own personal limit and capacity. Capacity increases with age and decreases when there is brain trauma or disease.
Children with difficulty with working memory need help to reduce the load. Teachers and parents can help by recognizing the signs or difficulty with maintaining ideas or instructions, conducting an audit of the working memory load, and by repeating and emphasizing important information. Visual charts, personalized dictionaries and memory cards can help by outsourcing memory requirements. Students also need to self-advocate by taking notes, asking for help, staying organized and putting information into long-term memory.
There are things to do at home and at school to help your child strengthen working memory skills.
1. Work on visualization skills.
- Encourage your child to create a picture in his mind of what he’s just read or heard. For example, if you’ve told him to set the table for five people, ask him to come up with a mental picture of what the table should look like. Then have him draw that picture. As he gets better at visualizing, he can describe the image to you instead of needing to draw it.
- Present problems vertically. Use graph paper so students can organize rows and columns for a math problem. For older children, the use of calculators takes some strain off of the working memory.
2. Have your child teach you or work with others in teams.
- Being able to explain how to do something involves making sense of information and mentally filing it. If your child is learning a skill, like how to dribble a basketball, ask him to teach it to you. Teachers do something similar by pairing up students in class. This lets them start working with the information right away rather than waiting to be called on.
3. Suggest games that use visual memory.
- There are lots of matching games that can help your child work on visual memory. You can also do things like give your child a magazine page and ask him to circle all instances of the word the or the letter a in one minute. You can also turn license plates into a game. Take turns reciting the letters and numbers on a license plate and then saying them backwards, too.
4. Play cards.
- Simple card games like Crazy Eights, Uno, Go Fish and War can improve working memory in two ways. Your child has to keep the rules of the game in mind. But he also has to remember what cards he has and which ones other people have played.
5. Encourage active reading.
- There’s a reason highlighters and sticky notes are so popular! Jotting down notes and underlining or highlighting text can help students keep the information in mind long enough to answer questions about it. Talking out loud and asking questions about the reading material can also help with this. Active reading strategies can help with forming long-term memories too.
6. Chunk information into smaller bites.
- Ever wonder why phone numbers and social security numbers have hyphens in them? Because it’s easier to remember a few small groups of numbers than it is to remember one long string of numbers. Keep this in mind when you need to give your child multi-step directions. Write them down or give them one at a time. You can also use graphic organizers to help break writing assignments into smaller pieces.
7. Make it multisensory.
- Processing information in as many ways as possible can help with working memory and long-term memory. Write tasks down so your child can look at them. Say them out loud so your child can hear them. Toss a ball back and forth while you discuss the tasks your child needs to complete. Using multisensory strategies can help your child keep information in mind long enough to use it.
8. Help make connections.
- Help your child form associations that connect the different details he’s trying to remember. Grab your child’s interest with fun mnemonics like Roy G. Biv. (Thinking about this name can help students remember the order of the colors in the rainbow.) Finding ways to connect information helps with forming and retrieving long-term memory. It also helps with working memory, which is what we use to hold and compare new and old memories.
- Memory-boosting tricks and games are just some of the ways to help your child with executive functioning issues. If your child continues to have significant difficulties with working memory, it might be a good idea to get an evaluation for possible attention issues. You may also want to explore tips from experts on topics like getting organized and managing attention.