What Is Working Memory?

Understanding our mental ‘scratchpad’

Rae Jacobson

 

Iagine this: You’re throwing a party and ask your child to help set up. The instructions you give him seem simple enough: Put his toys in his room, move everyone’s shoes to the closet and set the table. He agrees, but when you go check on him later, the table isn’t set, his shoes are still in the hallway and he’s put toys … in the closet.

What’s going on?

Kids who have a hard time “staying on track” may be having problems with working memory, which is an executive function that plays a major role in how we process, use and remember information on a daily basis. Remembering a phone number, recalling directions, remembering how to use grammar and structure, writing an essay and applying the quadratic formula are all mental tasks that use working memory.

“Working memory is sort of a category above attention,” says Dr. Matthew Cruger, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s keeping in mind anything you need to keep in mind while you’re doing something.” Whereas long-term memories stay with us even when we’re not thinking of them, working memory is an active process — a mental sketchpad where we hold and process all the information we need to access at any given time.

A limited workspace

But what happens when the scratchpad gets overloaded?

“Our brains have a finite capacity for juggling a lot of information at once,” explains Linda Hecker, MEd, the lead education specialist at the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. Hecker, who also serves as an associate professor at the college, says she helps her students understand the role of working memory by describing it as a table. “We talk about it as ‘cognitive workspace.’ When you have a lot of new information it’s easy to overload your cognitive workspace and things start falling off.”

Dr. Cruger agrees, noting that when kids with working memory issues are asked to perform a new task and think of five rules for how the task should be done, they often come up short. “They can’t hold both sets of directions in mind at once. They end up doing the task, but making a lot of mistakes along the way — or only completing half the assignment — because they’re not able to keep in mind what they need to do, what comes next and the rules for how it’s done all at once.”

Learning disorders and working memory

Everyone struggles with the limits of working memory sometimes — forgetting an item from a shopping list, or drawing a blank when you’re trying to remember the rules of a new game. But for kids with learning disorders, Hecker says, working memory often presents a more significant problem.

“Kids with LDs have smaller working memory capacity,” says Hecker, because adjusting for the difficulties that come with LDs — like dyslexianonverbal learning disorder or auditory processing issues — takes up a considerable amount of their “cognitive workspace.”

That’s because they need to consciously break down and perform processes that other kids do automatically. For example:

      • If a child has auditory processing issues she has to work much harder to listen, recall and apply what’s being said in class.
      • A kid with a non-verbal learning disorder has to actively work to appropriately interpret and respond to social cues – like facial expressions, sarcasm and implication — a process that’s second nature for most kids.

This extra work means more clutter on the “table,” which leaves less space for new information and often translates to a slower processing speed overall.

ADHD and working memory

Kids with ADHD can also struggle with working memory, which is one of the core executive functions — the mental skills responsible for helping us stay organized, set goals and complete them. Weaknesses in executive functions are what make kids with ADHD prone to being disorganized as well as being inattentive. Like learning disorders, kids with ADHD have to actively work to stay focused and organized — things that tend to be automated for other children.

For example, keeping guiding rules or principles in mind is more difficult for kids with ADHD who are already having trouble tuning out distractions. They might be external distractions, such as a dripping faucet or kids playing outside, or internal, like anxiety or even just wondering what’s for dinner later.

“A smaller cognitive workspace means that working memory functions — holding on to information, recalling instructions or following through with tasks that require planning — are harder to perform,” says Hecker. “Less space means things are more likely to get lost along the way.”

One of the challenges kids with working memory issues face, Dr. Cruger notes, is that their lapses can easily be misinterpreted as bad behavior. When they fail to follow a set of instructions they appear to be unmotivated or even oppositional which can lead conflict teachers and parents and accusations of not trying hard enough. Kids hate having to admit that they can’t remember things, he adds, and they tend to try to minimize the amount of effort they put into things that don’t yield positive results. And the criticism they get in turn is a disincentive for them to expend the extra energy it takes for them to keep track of what’s expected of them.

For example, explains Dr. Cruger, “If you say to your child, ‘Go put your pajamas on, put out your clothes for tomorrow and brush your teeth,’ but he either only completes one or two of the actions, or keeps coming back asking ‘what was the third thing again?’” Without context, it might seem like your child is being disobedient, but once you know what to look for, “it’s a pretty obvious sign he’s struggling with working memory.”

How to Help Kids With Working Memory Issues

Supportive strategies

Problems with working memory — the ability to keep in mind the information you need to complete a task — affect kids both in and out of school. But there are things parents can do and strategies kids can learn that can help them succeed, even if it doesn’t come automatically to them.

Get to know your child’s limits

If you’ve given your child what feels like a reasonable set of instructions, but he keeps getting off track, it’s a good sign that he’s reached the limits of his working memoryTuning in to when — and how often — he starts to lose the thread will help you get a clearer picture of your child’s capacity to hold information. Once you know where his limits lie, you’ll be able to use that as a guide for giving effective directions.

For example, if you notice your child has a hard time following multi-step directions, try breaking tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps:

      • Don’t: give a string of instructions, like “Go put your toys away, then put the bike back in the garage, wash your hands and let your sister know it’s time for dinner.”
      • Do: Try focusing on one task at a time: “We’re getting ready to have dinner soon. It’s time to put your toys away. When you’re finished, let me know and I’ll tell you what to do next.”
  • Break it down

    Schoolwork that seems simple on the surface may actually require a lot of working memory. With kids trying to tackle too much at once it often translates to sloppy — or unfinished — work and creates anxiety. Teasing out the micro-tasks will help you and your child break the assignment down into manageable parts.

    For example, if your child is writing an essay he’s using his working memory to recall important information, generate and organize ideas, use correct spelling and grammar, and even make sure his writing is legible. Trying to think through everything at once can clutter up his mental scratchpad. Instead encourage him to approach one task at a time:

        • Generate and write down major ideas
        • Examine the information and create a thesis statement
        • Outline the structure
        • Write a rough draft (don’t worry about spelling or punctuation)
        • Edit and polish

    Breaking homework assignments or study sessions down into manageable chunks will help your child avoid cognitive overload, work more effectively and develop good study habits.

    Create routines

    Helping kids get into routines is essential for helping with working memory. “Routines are the goal,” says Linda Hecker, MEd, the lead education specialist at the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. “When we’re able to automate a task it no longer requires working memory to function. Remembering what to do next takes up cognitive workspace — and that’s not necessary.” Here are some tips for creating routines:

        • Be consistent: Routines should be just that — routine. Find a pattern that works and stick with it.
        • Be patient: It takes time to build effective habits, and distractions happen. Don’t expect kids to get it right away. Offering reminders and praising your child’s efforts to stay on course will help him stick with the routine until it sinks in.
        • Use verbal and visual cues: Help kids internalize routines by adding verbal and visual backups.
        • For example, visual clues could be: Drawing a picture to illustrate how an essay is structured, writing out the order of steps for a math problem, using post-it notes as reminders around the house
        • Verbal cues could range from saying each task out loud before he does it, “Step 3, put my homework in my backpack for tomorrow…” to making up a song or poem to help him commit important information — like commonly used math formulas or the names of all 50 states — to long-term memory.

    Outsource

    Not everything needs to be remembered. Tools like to-do lists, organizers and reminders free up vital “workspace” and make it easier for kids to remember important information. “Externalizing organizational tasks takes some of the pressure off working memory,” explains Hecker. “I encourage my students to write everything down — assignments, ideas, anything they want to remember later.”

    But remember, organizational tools only work if they’re used. Help your child find the tools that work for him and make the tools part of his routine.

    “Kids often truly believe that they’ll remember information later on, so they don’t write it down,” says Dr. Matthew Cruger, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. Then later, when they can’t remember all the things they need to finish the homework assignment, they’re frustrated and embarrassed.

    But the next day the same thing happens again. They’re sure they can remember what they need to do — right up until they can’t.

    Help your child get into the habit of writing down important information — homework assignments, dates for field trips, his brilliant idea for building the best robot ever — right away, even if he thinks he’ll be able to remember it.

    Medication

    “Medications that enhance attention can help with working memory,” explains Dr. Cruger. ADHD medications don’t treat working memory issues, but they do reduce distractibility and increase focus, which makes it easier for kids to access their working memory. But Dr. Cruger notes, “It’s still essential to provide clear direction and manageable instructions.”

    Gaming

    Researchers are studying if methods like brain training can actually improve working memory capabilities. As research expands, we may learn more about the effectiveness of these strategies, but at the moment the long-term benefits aren’t clear. Computer games, apps and memory games can be used alongside other strategies, but it’s important to stick with established supports as well.

    The bottom line

    For now the best way to help kids with working memory issues is to focus on creating and practicing healthy, effective coping strategies. Creating routines, using tools and offering support will help your child develop strategies he’ll be able to fall back on for the rest of his life.