Are you baffled and frustrated when your child forgets what he clearly knew yesterday? Or does he study hard and seem to know the material only to be unable to recall it during the test? Memory retrieval issues like these are actually very common because the demands on your child's memory are much heavier than those for an adult’s. Not only does he have a lot more to learn than an average adult, but he is also covering many, diverse subjects that may not interest him much. Consequently, a well-developed ability to recall information is crucial to your child's academic success. Fortunately, you have many ways to help your child build stronger, more efficient memory skills to make learning easier.
This is the first in a series of posts on memory. In this post, I’m going to explain a lot about working memory including:
- what working memory is
- how it affects your child’s academic success
- easy-to-spot behaviors that show if your child struggles with a weak working memory
- three strategies that you can use to help him
In future posts, I’ll cover three other critical topics that will help you build your child’s memory:
- How to Improve Your Child's Memory with Spaced Practice
- How to Improve Your Child's Memory via Focus, Priming, and Metaphor
- Use Overlearning to Improve Your Child's Memory
Why Does Working Memory Matter?
The research on working memory is super exciting because researchers and educators are finally using it to help kids experience a lot more success and a lot less frustration. But there are many questions parents ask me as I help them build their children’s working memory. Let’s cover some common ones to help you decide if it is a problem area for your child.
What is Working Memory?
Working memory refers to the brain’s capacity to hold and manipulate information for a short time so we can learn. Your child needs a strong working memory so he can follow multi-step directions or complete academic tasks like solving math problems.
More specifically, working memory is a brain or cognitive ability that allows your child to store pieces of information, known as “bits,” for about 3-10 seconds so he can recall them to complete a task. Cognitive scientists often refer to working memory as the “sticky notes” in our brains. The more sticky notes you can hold, the easier it is to learn, focus and follow directions.
For example, when your child is writing, he must hold the next few ideas or thoughts he wants to write down while he is still working on writing the current one. Each idea is on a mental sticky note. A child with a weak or inadequate working memory is prone to forgetting ideas he was holding in his memory. His sticky notes peel off and fall away before he can use them, and he loses his great ideas. A kid like this hates to write because it’s so frustrating to keep losing his ideas before he can get them down on paper.
Quick Story: One of my middle school students recently went from barely being able to write a sentence to writing a five-paragraph essay. A miracle? No, he had the language skills needed before, but his working memory was so weak he couldn’t keep his thoughts long enough to get them down. His mom’s help in strengthening his weak working memory was the key to his experiencing success in writing. His mom was thrilled, not only to see him write a paper independently, but because their relationship improved since she was no longer nagging him to finish his homework, and it freed her up to take care of other family needs.
How Does Working Memory Affect a Child’s Academic Success?
Strong working memory is essential for all academic areas. As the above example on writing suggests, school becomes frustrating and exhausting if your child is often forgetting where to go next in a task. I’ve had so many kids tell me they thought they were stupid because they couldn’t remember the next step in a math problem or recall the definition of a word they just heard seconds ago.
It’s heartbreaking. Kids who internalize and repeat the “I’m-stupid” script are at far greater risk for failing a class, becoming depressed, and dropping out of school. Our brains believe what we tell ourselves and act accordingly. I’ve had students who did fine in the primary grades, but hit a wall in the upper grades due to the heavier working memory demands and began to “forget” to turn their homework in. They had bought into the “stupid” script and started subconsciously sabotaging themselves.
How Do I Know if my Child is Struggling With Weak Working Memory?
Parents know their kids. If you suspect there’s an issue, there probably is. I have yet to tell a mom she is wrong on this one. Weak working memory shows up in so many areas. Here are some common ways your child may be showing you his struggle:
- Trouble following directions: He often does the first thing or two you ask but forgets the rest of the multi-step direction, so he can’t follow through on instructions. Or, you may notice he skips a step in a task or repeats steps because he knows there are multiple steps, and he’s trying to fill in those missed steps somehow.
- Lack of attention: Since his mind can’t hang onto all the salient information needed to complete a task, it begins to wander, or he “zones out.” Parents often say to me, “He doesn’t seem to hear a word I say.” He appears to have poor attention skills, but this is often due to weak working memory.
- Little to no interest in books: Why read when you can’t remember much of what you just read and connect it to what you know and care about? For these kids, reading feels like a waste of their time. And, sadly, it is. But, it doesn’t have to be.
- Little to no interest in academic learning: Again, he thinks why bother when it’s so hard to learn, and his hard work doesn’t produce much? School is just a place where he doesn't measure up. His friends aren’t working as hard as he is and they're easily completing homework and passing tests.
- Avoids writing: Writing is completely dependent on a robust working memory. It can be torture for a kid to try to write much of anything when he can only hold onto a few bits of information at a time.
- Tells you he hates school: He is so frustrated and angry that he cannot produce like his peers even though he is working hard. It’s a downward spiral. The more he works, the more frustrated he gets. Frustration like this takes the brain “off line” because the thinking portion of the brain can't operate when the emotional center is highly charged, and learning becomes impossible.
- Struggles with math problems: Any math problem involving multiple steps, like division or story problems, is a no-win for him, especially if they involve multiplication facts he hasn’t memorized.
- Needs a lot more time: Since he must keep going back over the material to recall it and use it, he needs a lot more time to complete work. It’s not unusual for a kid like this to need twice as much time, or even more, to complete homework and tests.
- Limited language: He may not be very talkative or verbal. It’s anywhere from hard to impossible to follow a conversation when you can hold onto so little of it. Additionally, there is the fear that he’ll look stupid, so he’s learned it’s safer not to say much.
Is There a Test that Would Indicate my Child has a Working Memory Issue?
There are tests, but usually, an educational psychologist administers them as part of a battery. This testing is expensive, often costing a thousand dollars or more. Fortunately, as you can see from the list above, it’s obvious when a child has a working memory issue as it perceptibly impacts his daily functioning. A test isn’t necessary not only because it is obvious, but also because I’ve never met a child whose working memory was too strong. The stronger your child’s working memory becomes, the easier he will find it to learn anything, and he will learn more rapidly with less effort.
A simple, no-cost, informal way to check your child’s working memory is to use the chart below. See if he can hold onto bits of information that are age appropriate. For example, if your child is seven years old, he should be able to keep three bits of information in his head and complete a 3-step direction like this: put away the milk, get your coat, and shut off the lights.
This is harder to do if he’s tired or distracted, but generally your child should be able to follow a certain number of short, simple directions that are appropriate for his age around 75% of the time.
Notice from the chart above, adding just one more bit of information to his memory load increases your child’s ability to work at a level that is two to three years or grade levels higher.
Quick Story: I often see students who struggle in their classes improve their working memory by one or two bits and take an academic leap. I recently worked with an 8th grader who performed at a 4th grade level on working memory. She could recall four bits of information with 75% accuracy. I gave her some working memory games and she practiced them daily, for about three weeks and was able to go up to five bits.
While it doesn’t sound like it would make much of a difference, she reported she was able to recall more of what she read, block out classroom distractions, and do her homework in less time. For example, she found it much easier and less time-consuming to memorize a poem for her literature class. Her mother was especially pleased that homework was no longer taking her entire evening. She now had more time for family, friends, and sleep. This in turn, reduced her stress level and she experienced less testing anxiety, an issue that she had been dealing with for years.
What Causes Working Memory Problems?
Like a lot of things involving the brain, researchers have some hypotheses, but they’re not sure. Often, it seems to be a genetic predisposition, but traumatic birth history, brain trauma, or illness are also suspects. The good news is that whatever the cause, working memory is a skill that can become stronger with practice. Researchers call this “plasticity” or “malleability.” It merely means that the brain, especially a child’s brain, changes relatively quickly in response to the demands, or requests, its environment places on it.
Can Card Games Help Build Working Memory?
Beware of articles that recommend you play games like “Go Fish” with your child to build working memory. A key requirement of building working memory is to hold a number of bits of information for 3-10 seconds and then retrieve it. Card games don’t do that. There’s also too much lag time between plays, so they can’t build your child’s working memory.
Are Working Memory Worksheets or Workbooks a Good Idea?
Worksheets are suitable for practicing and building speed with specific skills like addition in math, but strengthening working memory requires a child to hold onto information and then recall that information a few seconds later. Worksheets can’t provide that kind of practice. If you find a workbook that claims to build working memory, don’t buy it.
Three Ways to Help Your Child Improve His Working Memory
There are many ways to help a child improve his working memory. Here are three to get you started:
1. Explain Working Memory to Your Child.
This is one of the most helpful things you can do. Explain that his brain must hang onto the information that is coming in so he can follow directions or connect the new information to what he already knows. This is what learning is, and if his brain can’t hang onto information for a few seconds, doing tasks like preparing to leave the house or learning the steps to reducing a fraction are impossible.
Your explanation will enable his metacognition—thinking about his thinking. It’s vitally important for us to have more conversations with our kids on how their brains work. A lot of kids are relieved to learn simple ideas about how their brains work. Metacognition gives them the framework to think about how to make learning easier for themselves and take more responsibility for their learning.
2. Find Gentle, Fitting Ways to Challenge Your Child’s Memory.
Meet your child’s working memory where it is and grow it. Let me unpack this.
Always begin from a place of success. So many times, I have seen parents work on a skill far above where a child can be successful. If you know your child has trouble remembering three things, don’t try to give him more and expect him to grow. This never works. This will unintentionally sabotage you and your child.
Instead, give your child an amount you know he can be successful with then help him add one more thing. For example, if he can usually remember a three-step direction, give him a three-step direction and encourage him to say it back to you three times. Then say, “Good. Now, I want to challenge your brain and add one more item to your list. Ready? Here we go…”
3. Play this Game to Improve Your Child’s Working Memory.
Researchers have been studying and developing ways since the 19th century to understand and build working memory. That’s a long time. They have created some clever ways to strengthen working memory.
The trick is knowing which ones are worth your child’s time and which ones purport to build working memory but don’t.
Here’s one that’s been a part of the field for decades. I turned it into a game called “You Must Remember This.” I’ve played it with hundreds of kids over the last fifteen years. It works. Try it.
Here’s How You Play:
- Watch the video (click the player above).
- Find a free metronome app.
- Figure out how many bits is a good fit for your child. Look at your child’s age and find the corresponding recommended number of bits. Subtract one or two from this if he has shown any behaviors I mentioned earlier. Remember, always begin and work with your child from a place of success.
- Use a new list of items every time you play.
- The sequence matters. Your child should say the items in the same order he heard them.
- You can use any items off the list; there’s no order you need to follow.
- To move from one level to the next in this game, your child needs to achieve 75% accuracy. For example, if you played four sets of the game with your child that would mean he got three out of four sets 100% correct.
- Keep playing daily until he can say a number of sets at 75% accuracy or better. Once he can, you know he’s improved his working memory by two to three grade levels. Celebrate! This is a major achievement. Then, start working on the next level by adding one more bit, so his working memory becomes even stronger.
What if my Child is Struggling With the Game?
“You Must Remember This” is a challenging game. If your child is struggling, there are several things you can do to make it easier:
First, you can take him off the metronome to give him more time to make a picture of what you’re saying in his imagination.
Second, try playing “in category.” This way of playing merely means giving your child a list of related items. For example, if he was having a lot of trouble with a list of three random items, you could give him a list of three colors, foods, or clothing items. Staying in category lets you create an easier list for his brain to remember and is an excellent way to help him become more comfortable with a new, longer list.
Remember, be patient with your child and expect to play his level of the game for weeks before his brain is strong enough to add another item to the list. It takes a lot of practice to grow your child’s working memory capacity, but it’s well worth the effort because all learning requires a strong working memory. Be sure your child is working to his full potential so he can learn as efficiently as possible.
The Hard Part
The hard part with building your child’s working memory is the required training schedule. Don’t shoot the messenger, okay? Here it is: practice daily, five times per week, for about 10 minutes per day. This schedule is essential! Your child’s brain must have repeated, targeted, daily exposure to the task of holding onto information. When you skip days, his brain loses the growth you helped him build. (In our WowzaBrain program, students typically train around 30 - 45 minutes because they are also working on additional cognitive skills like processing speed, rapid naming, and reading skills like phonemic awareness and reading fluency.)
Daily practice is efficient practice. Practicing once or twice a week is not. Whatever activity or program you choose, be sure to practice daily. Daily practice builds strong neuronal pathways. Just as with soccer or piano, daily practice is essential for strengthening your child’s working memory skills. Inconsistent practice will not produce the results you’re looking for. It will just frustrate both of you.
Your Big Takeaways
- Working memory is an essential skill for all learning. It merely means hanging onto some bits of information for a few seconds so your child can apply it to a task and follow directions or learn something.
- Many kids struggle with weak working memory. This makes learning anything a lot harder than it needs to be. The struggle these kids have with learning is evident in their behavior and poor school performance despite their hard work. They’re frustrated and so are their parents.
- You can help your child build his working memory by explaining the concept to him, gently challenging his working memory, and playing our WowzaBrain game, You Must Remember This.
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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