Working memory is a term I have heard teachers and parents mention recently. The first question really is what is working memory? Of note is that working memory is not a physical part of the brain. It is a model that provides a way for scientists to discuss and understand human function. The brain is very complex and multiple parts of the brain are implicated in the function we are calling working memory. The model is pictured with the Central Executive taking the role of the manager of lots of aspects of thinking including working memory, attention, reasoning, task flexibility, task solving, planning, and execution. The visuospatial sketch pad helps us to understand the world through visual perception and making meaning through vision. The Episodic Buffer is a combination of verbal and visual and tends to operate around highly memorable events. Phonological Loop provides understanding through language, hearing instructions, listening to music and talking to other people. As information is filtered through these processes and managed by the Central Executive it will eventually be stored in long term memory. This is when we can start to develop automaticity and fluency as we learn.
Attention has a big part to play in Working Memory. Interestingly there are two aspects to this. It is important that we can be inattentive to information that is not relevant to what we want to learn or in other words ignore distractions. The other aspect is of course being able to pay attention to something that is relevant to what we want to learn. Children who struggle with attention find that they struggle to filter out what is not important. For Working Memory to work well we need to be able to decide what to pay attention to and then actually pay attention to it. For parents and teachers figuring out who is paying attention can be difficult. It is hard to tell from the outside who is and isn’t paying attention. Attention requires considerable energy and paying close attention to a task can be extremely tiring.
So, what is happening when Working Memory fails? A great analogy is of post it notes. Everyone’s working memory is a different sized post it note but once you have filled the post it note with information the rest of the information just doesn’t fit. You or your child might have very large A3 sized post it notes while someone else may have a tiny post it note. Another analogy is of a coffee cup. Again, everyone has a different sized coffee cup but once the cup is full all the rest of the coffee will flow out of the top of the cup and be lost.
How can we help to support our Working Memory? The essentials are chunking information together, pacing information and rehearsal. Chunking means that instead of presenting information in single pieces we put them together. An example of this is the way we generally group numbers in a phone number together. A phone number might be presented as 021 515 2890 or in three chunks rather than 10 individual pieces of information. Ensuring that the pace of information is snappy, short and uses simple language. Rehearse information at least 4 times but some children with difficulty in this area may need between 10 -100 rehearsals. Have you ever gone out and then can’t remember if you locked the door? This is an example of working memory failing. In order to get around this you can say as you lock the door, I’ve looked the door up to 4 times so that you will be sure to remember.
Once you have the essentials in place there are some other additional things that help working memory. Ensure that the physical environment is well organised, and clutter is removed. A child with some difficulty with working memory may be able to recall your instructions to find their uniform shirt until they arrive at their room and then must search under the bed and in several different drawers. By the time they’ve done this they may well have forgotten what they were looking for. Look for eye contact or a physical signal that your child is listening (paying attention to what you are saying) when you ask them to do something. Make sure that your child has started on a task, once they get going, they are more likely to keep going but if you tell them to do something and their working memory has failed, they are unlikely to be able to start. Check that your child has the language to explain to you what they are experiencing. Sometimes children can become very frustrated because they don't’ know how to tell us that they don’t know how to do something, and they are experiencing an emotional reaction to it. Encouraging physical intense physical activity appears to provide stimulus to working memory. Provide opportunities for children to run around prior to them starting homework and they may well be able to produce better results.
As parents we can help our children to make the most of their working memories, some of the tips might help our working memories also.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.