Three Sure Ways to Help Your Child Build a More Robust Memory for Learning: Focus, Priming, and Anchoring to Metaphors

We expect our kids to learn so much, but we don’t teach them enough about how to learn efficiently. We don’t mean to fail them, but not teaching them how to learn leaves them to sink-or-swim. There’s a better way!


This post is the third in a series of posts on memory. My goal is to show you how to make learning easier for your child. In my previous posts, I explain ways to improve working memory and how to use spaced practice. Both are crucial to efficient learning. 

My final post in this series will cover “overlearning” and explain how you can use it to improve your child’s memory.

This post will explain some critical concepts about how we learn so you can help you help your child make learning easier. Specifically, I’ll show you techniques to help build a stronger memory. A well-developed ability to recall information is crucial to your child’s academic success. If you understand how he can more easily recall information, you can give him a considerable advantage.

One of the most challenging things about learning is storing the new material in your brain so you can “pull it out” later and use it. Students are expected to remember huge amounts of information if they are to make progress in their classes. They often understand the information when the teacher first presents it. However, when they need to recall it later to solve a problem or connect it to the next new concept, they fail because the memory was too weak and fragile for them to recall.

A “memory trace” in your child’s brain is what allows him to recall something. You need to help your child build strong, robust memory traces. There are many ways to do this. See my post on spaced practice for some good ones.

I’m going to focus on the following three ideas to help your child build memories that are richer and more easily accessible:

  1. Focusing
  2. Priming
  3. Building “Sticky” Metaphors

We’ll start with focusing because without it you can’t do priming or metaphor-building. Focusing is the first step to all learning; it’s the gateway that allows the brain to take in information.

1. Focusing

What Is Focusing?

Focusing is the ability to pay attention to what matters or is salient. Our kids may be paying attention; the problem is they often are paying attention to the wrong thing. Perhaps they’re paying attention to their cell phones or what video game their friends have. Focusing is like a spotlight. Your child not only has to turn it on, but he also must know what to shine the light on.

Focus is the Brain's Spotlight.

Why Is It So Hard for my Child to Focus?

There are many reasons a child can have difficulty focusing. He may not have had a lot of practice at concentrating or paying attention for the more extended periods that classes and homework need. The quick movement and rapid changes kids see on screens make for a weaker focusing “muscle” that many kids need to strengthen.

Many kids have never needed to focus to the extent school requires. They’ve done fine at home, but school demands a much higher level of focus. Not only do teachers, schoolwork, and homework need kids to pay attention for longer periods, but they may also ask them to focus on material that may not be of interest to them.

It could also be that the material is too far over your child’s head. He can’t make the necessary connections between what he knows and what he’s supposed to be learning. There’s too much of a gap between the two. When something is way over our heads, a common response of the brain is to tune it out so we can avoid the frustration of trying to learn something we are not able to learn yet. 

Another possible reason is a weak working memory, which I address in a previous post.

These are just a few common reasons it can be difficult for your child to focus. The good news is that the techniques in this series on memory can help your child no matter what the underlying cause might be. It’s also good news because your child’s focus can’t be too strong. It’s worth understanding how to build memory. The more you can help your child with building memory, the stronger life-long learner he can become.

How Can I Help my Child Build His Focusing Ability?

Here are Seven Ways

I. If your child has trouble focusing due to lack of practice, increased demands, or uninteresting material, read this rest of this section.

II. For poor focus due to an overly large gap between your child’s current knowledge and the new material, you can help by finding a curriculum that is more appropriate to his existing knowledge base and understanding.

III. If your child has a weak working memory, see my previous post on the topic.

IV. One of the best ways to help your child build more general focusing skills is to talk to him about his remarkable brain. He is the captain of the ship, and his brain works for him. Explain to your child that he can tell his brain to focus and pay attention.

     “It sounds too obvious,” you say? It’s not. Many kids I work with haven’t considered this idea to help themselves focus and complete work. I’ve seen students’ eyes get big and wide as they considered this powerful suggestion. You can help your child by explaining and then reminding him about this technique. You might say, “Jacob, you oversee your brain. You are the captain. If your brain starts thinking about things other than your math homework, tell your brain, ‘Focus, Brain! Let’s get back to work on this problem. I’ll give you a quick break once you help me finish the next three problems.’”

V. Explain to your child that it’s hard on his brain when he does more than one thing at a time. It seems like we can multitask between two or more activities at one time, but there’s a lot of research that says we can’t. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, says the brain is particularly good at deluding us on this. He says we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time well. At best, the brain can shift between tasks. We must move our attention as we switch our focus, and this tires the brain out. So, every time your child checks his phone, he’s loading his brain and making it significantly harder to finish his work. He’s also more likely to make errors. In effect, he’s a second-rate captain. Encourage him to be fair to his brain by focusing exclusively on his homework.

VI. Help your child plan out smart breaks. There’s debate as to how long we can focus. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who has focused his career on human brain development and known for his series of books called “Brain Rules,” says adults can only focus well for about ten minutes at a time. He breaks his 50-minute class lectures into ten-minute segments.

     I’ve found that the right focus-period-to-break ratio varies a lot amongst learners. It’s important to understand what works for your child and meet him where he is. If he has a shorter attention span, accept it and help him take more frequent breaks so he can get the most out of his actual study time.

     For example, perhaps doing two or three math problems at a time followed by a 3-minute break fits his focusing ability and helps him push through that page of problems. Over time, he will improve his focus muscle, but asking more than he can give right now will frustrate him, and he will lose his focus sooner. By helping him figure out what is reasonable for his brain, you’re helping him be successful and grow the amount of time he can focus.

Quick Story: I worked with a mom who, understandably, was deeply frustrated with her son’s inability to focus. She had to sit right next to him and walk him through all his homework. I encouraged her to break down his homework assignments into five-minute “mini” homework segments. He would work as much as he could during the five-minute intervals until a timer went off. This monitoring did take work on his mom’s part, but over time he was able to focus longer and extend the time. After a month or so of doing this, he began to work for more extended periods and no longer relied on the timer as often.  

VII. Finally, you can help your child build his focus by looking closely at how he studies. Is your child doing a lot of passive study or passive task review? This style of studying could be part of the reason for his struggle to maintain or grow his focusing skills. When the brain is more actively engaged in things like taking notes as opposed to a more passive task like rereading a chapter, it’s easier to stay focused. Another example of an active study task is to ask him to write his own short quiz on the secti he read. These engaged ways of studying are called “active learning” and not only does active learning build more robust memories, it helps your child keep his focus on the material so he can learn it.

2. Prime Your Child’s Memory

What Do You Mean by “Priming” Memory?

Priming is a way to say to the brain, “I don’t want to dump this new and important idea on you only to have you forget it. So, I’m going to give you some familiar concepts to connect it to so it sticks. They will help you remember this important idea so you can pull it out when necessary.”

How Does Priming Affect Memory?

The brain is a fantastic association-building machine. For example, when you see the word “dogs,” your brain begins to make associations that you may or may not be aware of. Your brain may recall all sorts of things about dogs, like their playfulness, or the sound of their barking. Because no two people have the same experiences, no two people have the same associations, but the brain is busy bringing lots of associations to mind.

By bringing all these connections to mind, each brain creates a web of ideas or concepts with many places for new ideas to connect. When new ideas attach to things we already know, they anchor themselves to this web. Because of this, any new idea or concept we learn has a much better chance of being recalled.

Here’s a typical example of weak memory you’ve probably experienced: learning and immediately forgetting someone’s name. Why does that happen? In part, it’s because the brain didn’t connect the person’s name to anything. One way we can learn and remember someone’s name is to make an association. For example, I recently met a woman named “Tammy.” As soon as she introduced herself, I made an effort to create an association so I would remember her name. I connected this Tammy to one who used to live next door to me.  As Tammy spoke about herself, I pictured her standing on my former neighbor’s feet and the two of them dancing. I knew one Tammy, and I connected her to the new Tammy. (Keep reading. I’ll explain below why I created such an odd image at the end of this post.) I love using this technique. People are surprised when I see them weeks later and remember their names. I like it not only because I remember their names, but it also takes so little effort to do so.

Now here’s an example that your child may experience with schoolwork: Say he is trying to remember that an octagon has eight sides, a simple way to prime his memory is to remind your child that an octopus has eight legs or tentacles and “octo” and “octa” means “eight.” Have your child picture an octopus holding each side of an octagon with one of its eight limbs.

Prime Your Child's Memory to Make New Ideas Easier to Remember.

You don’t need a lot of associations to make a good connection. One or two quick, solid associations help kids connect a new piece of information to what they already know, especially for a simple idea like an octagon having eight sides. Kids have a lot to learn, so we don’t want to overload them unnecessarily. 

How Does Priming Build More Vibrant and Robust Memories?

When you prime a brain to remember something, it takes the new information and connects it to the established web of associations it has already built. For example, if your child is learning about photosynthesis, one way to prime his brain for all the new information he needs to learn is to ask him to read the vocabulary list from the chapter on photosynthesis. The words “glucose, chlorophyll, and carbon dioxide” will prime his brain to make stronger associations with the concepts in the chapter, making it easier for him to recall and understand the new concept more deeply and thoroughly. He’ll make more and richer associations than if he had just started reading the chapter or his notes. Priming is a clever way to help the brain learn something, so it’s easier to recall later.

3. Build “Sticky” Memories by Using Metaphor

What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a comparison that asserts that “this thing” is “that thing” for the sake of quick understanding. For instance, “the sky’s the limit” is a metaphor. So is “it’s a piece of cake.”

Metaphors help us to think about something more deeply by making connections between two things. As we compare one thing to the qualities or attributes of another thing, the comparison evokes more meaning so we can understand the initial thing more clearly. Clear as mud? Read on.

Why Does Metaphor Help You Remember?

A metaphor is chock-full of ready-made associations for your brain to connect an idea to and develop. For example, in the common metaphor, “love is a battlefield,” there is a dense web of associations. All kinds of ideas, symbolism, and relationships can be pulled from this phrase such as: war, victory, teamwork toward a common goal, courage despite challenge, soldiering on for the greater cause, the need to conquer self to sacrifice for love, and fortitude in the wake of exhaustion for love’s sake.

This is just a brief list of the numerous associations this metaphor provides. It’s impressive how many associations the brain can make when you give it a metaphor. The brain is a busy beaver for building connections. (Did you catch the metaphor I just gave you?)

Metaphors Provide Multiple Points of Connection Between Old and New Ideas.

Without the metaphor, “love is a battlefield,” you might otherwise read “love can pose a lot of difficulties and rewards.” This phrase doesn’t help your brain produce such vivid imagery and related concepts as the metaphor of battle, does it? Far better than just explaining the concept, the metaphor helps you appreciate and rapidly absorb the complicated idea of how challenging love can be.

Why Does the Brain Love Metaphor?

The brain loves metaphor for many reasons. Here are four significant ones:

I. Metaphors are bite-size stories. The brain loves good stories because it releases serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, when it hears a story. Since stories are often comforting, using metaphors can help get and keep the brain in a receptive learning state. Compare this to learning a fact or concept that someone presents without a metaphor. Imagine pointing to a painting at a museum and telling students, “The critics of the time all praised this piece, but you can see the artist’s lack of originality, and poor use of perspective, color, and composition...” Now imagine pointing to the same painting and saying “the emperor has no clothes.” You can see how the story the metaphor brings to mind works much more quickly and leaves the door open for further instruction and inquiry.

II. Metaphors are short movies. Our brains find it far easier to recall what we can picture than what we hear. Our brains are movie-making machines. Let’s try it: Picture five, cube-shaped wooden blocks. Each has a letter on every side, and they’re stacked on one another, leaning to the right. At the bottom is the letter “S” and the letters “U, C, O, and F” follow upward. On the right side of each letter cube are the corresponding letters of “Z, D, X, Y, and A.” Each letter is a different, bright color on a white background framed in wood. They are sitting in front of a simple, blue background. Were you building a picture as you read this? Did it look something like this?

     Wasn’t it much easier on your brain to see the photo rather than all the words? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures, like a movie. If I say, “That news commentator is the boy who cried wolf,” a little, easy-to-remember movie plays in your head in a split second. Then you connect the movie to the news commentator, and you have a colorful, strong memory trace instantly. It’s so much easier for our brains to remember a visual story than an isolated fact, devoid of connections, sitting alone on the page.

III. Metaphors do a lot of the heavy work for us. In the earlier example, “love is a battlefield,” your brain made numerous associations between love and battlefield because a battlefield has so many aspects to it. Metaphors afford our brains many points of connection as the image we’re associating with a new concept unfolds. This rapid association making is powerful and efficient because you don’t have to do as much work to make the associations needed to consider something more richly and deeply. The metaphor does much of the work for you.

IV. Finally, metaphors offer an emotional as well as a conceptual connection to an idea. When your brain connects “love” to “battlefield” many emotions can be tapped into like fear, happiness, or anger. Emotions bring a “stickiness” that helps the brain learn and remember. Emotions tap into your body: your physical sensations, not just the idea.

How Does Metaphor Anchor a Memory?

We can’t learn something new unless there is some aspect about this new piece of information we can connect to what we already know. This lack of connection is one of the primary reasons your child struggles to remember. In these cases, the new information presented is like a helium balloon without a string. When your child’s brain tries to grasp the new information the idea floats away because there is no string to attach it to what your child already knows. A metaphor can be the string. (See? I used a metaphor again to make it easier for your brain to grab onto and remember what I’m explaining.)

What are Some Hacks for Metaphor-Building?

Psychologists tell us that our brains can better remember the images or mental movies we create when they are odd, gross, funny, emotional, or have movement. So, if I want to help my child remember something, not only would I help him create a metaphor, but I would also add these components to build a more robust, well-connected memory that he’s more likely to remember.

For example, when I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I was trying to learn Tammy’s name, I said I created a mental movie of her dancing on my neighbor’s toes. This taps into the odd, funny, emotional (it hurts to have someone standing on your toes!), and movement aspects the psychologists recommend.

Your Big Takeaways

  • Your child needs to focus before he can learn anything. You can improve weak focus by telling your child he can remind his brain to pay attention and that multitasking is counterproductive, using breaks appropriately, and by teaching your child active study techniques.
  • Prime your child’s memory by reminding him of something he already knows (octopus, for example) and associating new information (octagon) to that thing.
  • Use or create metaphors to build sticky memories. Metaphors have many ready-made points of association for connecting to new concepts.

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Have questions? Ask me below. I love to help.

Bridget Mosley, MEd, is a WowzaBrain cofounder and a Cognitive Learning Specialist with more than 30 years’ experience as an educator, reading clinic director, and parent workshop speaker. She is a die-hard fan of parents who believe they can help their kids overcome learning challenges.

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