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Working Memory Explained

Many of you have children who have seen or been evaluated by a neuropsychologist. All of them diagnose kids’ deficiencies in executive function skills. In a previous newsletter & blog post, I gave you a general overview of these skills. Today, I am going to focus on working memory.

Working Memory, Defined

Working memory is “the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It incorporates the ability to draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project into the future.” Thus defined by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare’s Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential, working memory is one of the executive skills parents can target to help their children cope, regain lost ground, and succeed.

Said more simply, your child may have a hard time keeping one bit of information in his or her mind while doing something else. Working memory also uses short-term memory and allows kids to complete both basic and complex tasks more easily. is an excellent resource providing support to parents in their quest to aid and guide their children with learning and attention issues such as those that entail working-memory shortfalls.

Some examples of using this skill are keeping track of belongings (for example, coats, keys, or sports equipment) and remembering what homework needs to be done. Working memory is also needed when doing math calculations such as those involving long division, fractions, and decimals. It is used in reading comprehension and studying for tests. Following multi-step directions is also difficult for kids with working-memory issues.

There are many articles available that give you ideas on how to help your child improve working-memory functions.

Calculations and Associations

I was just tutoring a fifth-grade girl who has working-memory issues. Having an association for the long-division process really helped her learn quickly. We used D.M.S.B. or “dirty monkeys smell bad.” We practiced over and over until she had it down. She went home and showed her grandma how to do it!

This young lady also struggled to keep math facts in her head as she was adding large columns of numbers. I taught her how to use 10 chunks and touch points. She resisted at first, but as she saw herself getting faster, she was hooked! Learning touch points for addition and subtraction reduces the need for working memory when calculating.

I also have “reference sheets” for all the fraction and decimal rules. Many kids have a hard time keeping track of these rules. Reference sheets can be kept in a school binder as a quick reference.

Reading, Highlighting, and Outlining

I have working-memory deficits when it comes to reading comprehension. I love to read, but if it is from a textbook, then I lose focus. What helps me is to highlight as I read. If I find I am not highlighting enough, I go back and re-read. I try to think about what is really important (for instance, what a teacher would ask about on a test). After I highlight, I go back and make an outline of what I highlighted. This really helps make the information stick and is a great strategy for my working-memory difficulties while reading technical information.

Note-Taking and Multitasking

In this article a final example of challenges for working memory is when you give your kids multi-step directions. We are so used to multitasking, and we do so much for our kids, that they often tune us out. Have your child grab a piece of paper or a note-taking app in their phone when you give them directions. This can prevent so much trouble for both of you. You can also simply ensure your child is looking at you when you give instruction and they repeat it back to you.

There is a lot more information available in the links I’ve provided and in the book Smart but Scattered for Teens. They also have versions of this book for younger kids and adults, too!

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