Working memory issues are among the most common problems children are likely to encounter. This could look anything like:
- Your son often starts telling you something then stops halfway because he can’t remember what he was going to say.
- Your daughter keeps forgetting stuff she’s supposed to take to school at home, and stuff she’s supposed to bring back home at school.
- Your child must constantly be reminded the same things, each and every day, over and over again.
- Your child often displays tracking problems in reading and has difficulty remembering where he was reading on the page.
- Your daughter agrees to go hang up her coat in the hall and put her dirty clothes in the laundry basket. One hour later, her coat is in the laundry basket and her dirty clothes are still lying on the floor.
- Your son has trouble completing assignments or makes many “careless mistakes” because he can’t remember what is expected of him.
- Your child keeps asking “what did you say again” anytime you give her instructions or ask her to do something.
Children with poor working memory often have a hard time staying on track. They forget things and are easily distracted. The problem is that this behavior has an impact on their ability to follow directions, even the simplest ones, and to solve problems. It can affect how your child behaves both at home and at school.
What is working memory and how does it affect your child?
Working memory is important in your child’s development because it allows him to work with information effectively. It is defined as your child’s ability to remember the information he needs to successfully complete a given task. This means being able to understand and follow instructions, process and use information, and successfully complete a task based on the information available to him. Science says that your child’s working memory determines his outcomes in subjects such as mathematics, reading and language skills.
Working memory also refers to your child’s ability to “multitask”. For example, a child with a poor working memory will think of taking his backpack when school is over, but will not think of taking his pencil pouch and lunchbox. In other words, he is likely to have a hard time associating physical and mental acts at the same time.
We now know that over 10% of children struggle with working memory issues, but we also know that a child’s working memory gets better with time. In other words, your child’s ability to process information increases as he grows older. However, unlike other children who can perform certain tasks almost automatically, children with poor working memory need help to be able to understand and perform instructions and processes. The easiest way to help your child with working memory issues is provide an environment that allows him to practice a little every day.
The good news is that there are simple strategies that you can start using from today to strengthen your child’s working memory.
Here are eleven easy ways to get started.
11 proven ways to improve your child’s working memory
1) Simplifying information can help reduce your child’s working memory issues
If you tell a child struggling with poor working memory to “put away his toys in the toy bin, put his books in the bookshelf and hang up his coat in the wardrobe”, not everything will get done. This is because such a child has trouble processing multiple instructions. He is therefore likely to mix things up (put the books in the toy bin for example) or only do the only thing he remembers.
By simplifying the information you give your child, you can help him better process instructions. For example, instead of giving too many instructions you can give a maximum of two instructions or even one instruction at a time.
To further help your child, you can also give him one instruction, then ask him to let you know when he’s finished: “please hang up your coat in the hall then come see me so I can tell you what to do next”.
2) Have your child say out loud what is expected of her
Many children with working memory struggle because they forget instructions or forget the rules that will help them solve specific problems. When you ask your child to say out loud what she is expected to do, you help her reflect on the actual steps she needs to take.
3) Taking notes can help strengthen working memory issues in children
If your child is struggling remembering things, making it a habit to write down exactly what is expected of him can help keep him on track. Even young children can be taught to draw pictures that help them remember what is expected of them. For instance, you can have your child draw a picture (or use readymade images) showing books in a bookshelf and toys in a toy bin to help him remember what he should do and how.
4) Privilege routines to improve your child’s memory
Routines are helpful for all kids, but they are crucial for children with working memory issues. They make it easier for your child to understand what he is expected to do at specific moments of the day. Routines need to be consistent to work, so morning routines, after-school routines and evening routines are particularly effective and can make both your lives easier! Write down your routines, use visuals to make it easier for your child to process information, and hang them up where your child can see them.
5) Certain games can help reduce working memory issues
Games that require your child to listen and follow instructions, for example Simon says, can help her practice her ability to remember things. The Memory game is also a great tool to help reduce your child’s poor working memory. Resources that encourage your child to match things, concentrate, search for find specific information from an image and work on her memory can help improve her memory. Card games such as Crazy Eights are also great for helping your child work on her memory.
6) Breaking tasks down can help improve your child’s working memory issues
Just as simplifying information is important for children struggling with working memory issues, it is also important to break tasks down to make it easier for these children to process information. This may mean asking them to tackle one homework assignment at a time, or asking them to do one household chore at a time. It is important that your child knows exactly what to do with regard to both school assignments and tasks at home.
Explaining the chore you expect him to do (and how) and asking him to repeat what is expected is an easy way to increase his chances of success. When it comes to homework assignments, asking your child to note down what he is expected to do, then to address only one task at a time, can make it easier to avoid mistakes, poorly done work, or incomplete assignments. Explaining homework assignments to younger children, asking them to tell you out loud what they are going to do, and asking them to complete only one task at a time can make it easier to deal with working memory issues.
Breaking down tasks can also mean choosing to overlook some things and privilege others. For example, if your child is learning his tables, it may be more effective to focus only on his mastery of a specific table rather than working on multiple tables AND also focusing on his handwriting.
7) Try a different approach to learning
Children with working memory issues struggle to process information, but they may respond better to alternative presentations of the same information. For instance, a child unable to effectively respond to written information may find it easier to process visual cues. For example, a visual form of how she should present her assignments (Name, class, title, date, etc), could be more effective than giving her the same information verbally.
Similarly, a visual presentation of what she is expected to do to prepare for school (for example a sheet of paper with an image or photo of her pencil pouch, her homework sheet, her lunch box, etc) can make it easier for her to process information.
Transforming new information into a poem or a song can be an easy and fun approach to help your child remember things more easily.
8) Help your child develop lasting effective coping mechanisms
The problem with poor working memory is that your child doesn’t think he will forget when you ask him to do something or when his teacher gives certain instructions. In other words, your child does not intentionally decide not to do something. It is therefore important to help him develop effective coping mechanisms. Brainstorm alternative ways of limiting the impact of his working memory issues:
- Writing down ALL homework assignments
- Writing down ALL the important ideas or projects he comes up with
- Using visual representations to remember what is expected of him
- Taking photos of important things
- Identifying a specific spot to put important things
- Using visual schedules
- Using post-it notes
Encouraging your child to choose a coping mechanism and transform that mechanism into a habit will make it easier for him to deal with working memory issues
9) Repeating activities can help children with working memory issues
It is not uncommon for children with working memory issues to struggle more than other children to remember new information and to learn new tasks. It is therefore important to repeat new activities to enable your child to master new skills or new tasks.
10) Let your child know that it is okay to ask for help
Everyone likes to succeed, and children who appear to always be struggling have a hard time dealing with this lack of success. It is not uncommon for them to try and hide their frustration by behavior such as playing the class clown, aggressive behavior, or acting disinterested.
That is why it is important for your child to know that it is okay to ask for help. Let him know that it is okay for him to work at his pace. It is important for him to know that you are available and willing to respond to his questions.
When your child “refuses” to follow instructions, never finishes homework, lacks focus and often acts “unmotivated” and uninterested, you or his teacher may mistake this for misbehavior. Understanding your child’s working memory issues helps explain his behavior and makes it easier for you to deal with that behavior. Ultimately, providing an environment in which he can work on his working memory every day is the most effective way to help.
11) Find ways to cope with your child’s poor working memory
Having a child with memory problems can leave you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Having to repeat instructions thousands of time, deal with uncompleted tasks and monitor everything to ensure that nothing gets forgotten can drive anyone mad!
Adopting your own coping mechanisms can make both your lives much easier. For example, making it a habit for your child to use a check list (visual or other) the night before school will make it easier for her to remember what needs to get done and will also help reduce stress during the morning rush.
When should you seek help for your child’s working memory issues?
Some researchers have found that daily practice for even five minutes a day can help improve your child’s working memory. Please seek professional help if your child seems to struggle despite your attempts to help them better process information, or if you feel that this problem is affecting them negatively both in school and at home.