How to identify working memory difficulties

How to identify working memory difficulties

If you know a child who only completes one or two instructions, never seems to be able to get started or complete a task, and can be (let’s be honest) more than a little frustrating with their ‘forgetfulness’, it may be a problem with working memory. Working memory is the ability to hold information in the mind while performing a task with it. It is often described as the brain’s post-it note, as it involves retaining and manipulating short-term information.


Working Memory Difficulties

Working memory is a stronger predictor of academic success than IQ and is needed for almost all classroom and daily life tasks. It is critical for learning and decision making. Most people can hold around 4 pieces of information in working memory for about 10-20 seconds, but for people with working memory problems (around 3-5 kids in every classroom), it can be much less. Children with working memory problems are often described as unfocused, lost and even lazy. Working memory does not improve with age (maturity) and usually remains an area of difficulty for life. However, some new research suggests it may be possible to increase an individual’s working memory performance.


Some skills that may be affected by working memory difficulties include:


  • Starting or completing tasks.
  • Completing Maths processes. Errors such as missing steps or only completing the first step in a problem can be due to working memory difficulties.
  • Writing. Writing uses a lot of working memory capacity as it is necessary to hold in mind what you wanted to say, remember the order of the words, the spelling of the words, how to form each letter and place them on lines, and add punctuation. When each of those skills is not automatic (can be done with ease and without thinking), it makes writing a really challenging task!
  • Following instructions. As adults, we can sometimes be in such a rush to get tasks completed, we end up giving a lot of instructions at once, often not in the order they are to be done and using far too much language. Children who seem to ‘never listen’ or fail to complete tasks may actually be showing signs of poor working memory.
  • Extracurricular activities. This is similar to struggling with instructions. One of my current students really enjoys Taekwondo, but when his old teacher, who used to demonstrate moves one at a time left, he was replaced with another tutor who teaches by giving all the instructions verbally at the start of the lesson. The result has been loss of interest in his once loved sport; a shame for any child who relies on extra curricular activities for his self-esteem and sense of achievement.


While programs designed to target working memory tend to show low levels of generalisation in other tasks, there are a range of strategies you can use to improve learning for a child with working memory difficulties. Teaching memory strategies can help the child to cut out unnecessary language, organise themselves, follow instructions more accurately, and use a multisensory approach to memorisation (repetition is the most used, yet least effective memory strategy!). Addressing memory difficulties can also reduce off-task behaviour, such as walking around the room, sitting quietly but not completing work as required and interrupting conversations.


If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend Working Memory & Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers by Susan Gathercole and Tracy Packiam Alloway. It’s packed full of easy to understand information and strategies for anyone working with a child who has working memory difficulties.


You may also want to download my working memory difficulties checklist.


Working memory difficulties checklist


This checklist does not provide a diagnosis but may help you to identify children in your class who experience working memory difficulties and refer them for further assessment.


In this working memory difficulties checklist you will:


  • Learn what working memory is and why it’s critical for learning
  • Recieve a checklist to help you identify kids at risk of working memory difficulties
  • Get tips on supporting children with working memory difficulties


Download Memory Checklist

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