What’s the deal with working memory and how can we improve it?

Working memory capacity naturally increases over time but there are ways to facilitate it’s efficiency.

What’s the deal with working memory and how can we improve it?

Working memory is the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form. It allows us to temporarily hold and manipulate information while performing mental tasks. You will use your working memory in almost every task you encounter and it is vital in tasks such as planning, comprehension, reasoning and problem solving. To access your working memory, you need to rely on your information processing skills and executive functioning skills ,and thus it is a momentous brain function that is so often over looked.

If your child has a learning difficulty, the task becomes even more challenging as they need to consciously break down and perform processes that other children do automatically. A child with a non-verbal disorder will need to use some of their working memory to appropriately interpret and respond to social cues which may be second nature to other children. This extra processing eats into that working memory capacity and can ultimately result in slower processing speed.

Working memory capacity naturally increases over time but there are ways to facilitate it’s efficiency.

Getting to know your child’s limits.

If you’ve given your child what feels like a reasonable set of instructions, but they keep getting off track, it’s a good sign that they’ve reached the limits of their working memory and may need a reduced list or adding a visual/concrete aid to assist them. If you are trying to help your child gain independence in, for example, bringing home their kit, it may be helpful to link it to a concrete or visual aid to start. This may include having a list which they stick up in their locker, reminding them what to pack or a 5 rule, “these 5 things you will need to bring home every Wednesday”.

Moving knowledge to long term stored memory so it is not “taking up space” in working memory

Over learning helps to move knowledge to long term storage. The system of overlearning is used in every year at Cargilfield where previous information or concepts are revised and built on but this can also be used at home.
Some examples could be: relearning previous weeks’ vocabulary through Quizlet, practicing times tables often, revising in a multitude of ways before exams.

Creating routines

When a routine is set and consistent, a task can start to be done automatically. This task will them no longer be a strain on working memory, which will free up some thinking space. If the morning routine seems overwhelming you may want to compartmentalise tasks. For example, getting their bag ready is done before breakfast and getting themselves ready is after breakfast. The routine should be maintain every day and items kept in the same space so working memory is not extensively used to locate items or plan tasks.

Playing memory building games

Strategy board games, games where you need to remember where an item is like Mahjong, or need to remember what cards someone else has like Uno, all help build working memory. Another classic memory-building game is the tray game. In this game you place a random assortment of items on a tray and keep them covered, you then uncover them for 30 seconds and your child will need to see how many items they can remember once they are re-covered. Playing this a few times can also develop information processing skills like categorising and sorting to remember by grouping.

Help with organisation

If your child’s pencil case is organised and equipped, they will be able to attend to instructions and tasks quicker, reducing the strain on working memory to retain information. Having them bring their pencil case home once a half term and sitting together to re-equip it and ensure it has all the essentials will not only be helpful in their immediate learning environment but will help create lifelong habits of physical and mental preparedness.

I hope this has been helpful to understand working memory more, please do contact me directly if you would like any more specific advice.

Megan Collier

Head of Support for Learning

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