Helen Trethewey, Inclusion Coordinator, Kellett School, Hong Kong

An experienced inclusion leader with a passion for early identification of children with learning differences, Helen has worked in education for over 25 years in the UK, Belgium, and Hong Kong. She is a specialist dyslexia teacher and assessor registered with the British Dyslexia Association. Helen understands the needs of children and families in the international context and regularly shares information through writing articles and public speaking. She writes a popular educational blog called ‘Twice Exceptional’, which has up to date, informative articles about neurodiversity and learning differences.

Did you know that having a good working memory is one of the strongest indicators of academic success at school?

Recent research by Maehler and Schuchart shows that working memory is an important predictor of school success. Those with good working memories perform well academically while those with poor working memories underachieve. Studies by Susan Gathercole also show that working memory difficulties have a substantial impact on learning, particularly in the early years of education.

As many as 1 in 10 children have working memory difficulties, but these are often unidentified.  Children with learning challenges like Dyslexia and ADHD also have working memory difficulties but the impact of these difficulties is often overlooked.

What are the signs of working memory difficulties?

Many parents and teachers know the signs only too well, but often wrongly think that the child is being lazy, difficult or distracted. They do not realize that it is the result of a working memory difficulty which the child cannot control.

Imagine the scenario: the teacher has just explained an activity in great detail to the class and has given a series of instructions. But as soon as the children get started Lisa asks, “What do I have to do?”. “I’ve just explained. Why weren’t you listening?” is the teacher’s frustrated response.

Likewise, every day, parents ask their children to get ready for school and give a string of instructions to find the child has only managed to remember one of the things they were asked to do.

These are both signs of working memory difficulties.

We rely on working memory for many everyday tasks like remembering directions to find a new place, remembering a product that someone recommends or to relay a message from one person to another.

Learning in the early years of the school relies heavily on working memory.  When you are reading and are sounding out a word, you need to remember the sounds to blend them. To understand a sentence, you have to remember the beginning by the time you get to the end. Writing is even more demanding as while you are trying to work out the spelling of a word, you still need to remember the sentence you intended to write.  In maths, when you perform a calculation you need to keep one number in your head while you add on another. Many tasks that are typically presented in a primary school classroom have a series of steps that need to be followed.  Those with working memory difficulties will often forget what all the steps are.  They may lose track of where they are and miss out or repeat a step.  They may not be able to complete a task because they don’t know what to do. Those with working memory difficulties also struggle to learn number bonds and times tables or remember spellings.

Why is there so little awareness of this important issue?

Memory is complex and there are many types of memory.  It is not as simple as having a good memory or a bad memory.  Each type of memory may not function at the same level.  You could have a good visual memory and a poor episodic memory for example.

A child can have an amazing memory for facts, particularly in topics that interest them, or they may recall previous events in great detail, but they cannot remember an instruction a teacher has just given. It is this inconsistency that confuses many adults. Often it can seem like a child is not trying hard enough rather than having a specific difficulty.

Working memory can be described as the brain’s notepad, it is the part of the brain which we use to temporarily hold information while we process it or act upon it.  We also use it to process information so that we can store it in our long-term memory.  Its capacity is limited and can vary greatly from person to person. This is another source of confusion for parents and teachers when so many children can remember a series of instructions with no difficulty, why can’t everyone.

There is an assumption that listening is a skill that just depends on effort. But for a child with poor working memory, it is almost impossible to listen to anything more than one short instruction. “Get your reading book” “Pack your school bag.” If the instruction is longer, the words literally disappear like balloons floating into the sky never to be seen again.

eachers would rarely give their class the same maths task as they know children have different abilities. However, when it comes to listening which relies on working memory, teachers will give the same instructions to everyone and expect the same response. But it is not a level playing field, some children simply cannot keep the information in their head long enough to process it.  This is why they cannot act upon it or remember it long term.

Teachers and parents need to be proactive in predicting when a task relies heavily on the working memory.  They need to consider how they can offer support and encourage success. Giving shorter instructions and asking the child to repeat back what was said is helpful. As is providing checklists of tasks that need to be done or the steps within tasks.  Establishing routines where activities are always done in the same order reduces the need to use the working memory. Also making it acceptable for students to ask for instructions to be repeated is important. Teachers can actively encourage the use of memory aids like visual checklists and help to teach children memory strategies.

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