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Why Working Memory Matters

The first step to help your child in coping  with working memory issues is identifying that there is an issue, and understanding why working memory matters. We hope this article will help.

Our ability to remember specific information – our memories – is what makes each of us unique. It also serves as a valuable evolutionary tool, as memory is the key aspect of taking in information, processing the information, and reacting accordingly. Memory, therefore, is the key aspect of learning. It is our ability to take information from our past and put it to use in the present.

Many experts believe that there are three stages to memory formation.

The first stage is sensory, when we take in the information that is presented to us. That information moves into short-term memory. Short-term memory has a limited capacity. If not addressed, short-term memory can juggle roughly half-a-dozen items for twenty or thirty seconds at a time.

The duration of short-term memories is adjustable if one were to apply various strategies to retain the information. If the information is repeated or reused, it is then moved to long-term memory. Unlike the sensory phase or the short-term phase, both of which are limited in their scope and duration, long-term memory can store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely.

In the past, long-term memory was essential to many aspects of human life, from simple traditions and instructions to histories and philosophies. However, in the age of the internet, there are many who believe that long-term memory is of far less value in the comprehension and evaluation of information.

Working Memory Is Different

Working memory is far more important in the process of learning and evaluating information.

Working memory, which is basically short-term memory but focused on specific functions, is the term that researchers use for the ability to take in, hold onto, and manipulate small batches of information over brief intervals.

It is the retention and manipulation of a small amounts of information that is needed to perform a cognitive task. You go to the grocery store to do some shopping and the grocery list that you have in your head is part of your working memory. It is essential to the shopping trip; but if you try to recall the information the next day, you’ll find the details fuzzy at best.

Note that the structure of working memory and long term memory is different. Working memory, they believe, is based on the activation of neurons, while long-term memory is based on the physical changes to neurons and their connections to each other.

In the age of the internet, when less importance is put on the long-term memory because of the easy access every individual has to a constant storehouse of information, working memory is seen as the key to intelligence and comprehension. Success is gauged by an individual’s ability to put facts together, prioritize that information and then to act on the prioritized information in a manner that is constructive.

A strong working memory helps here,. It makes it possible to hold different facts in your mind at one and reason, evaluate and think critically.  This is why IQ and large working memories are often connected.  The more facts a person can hold and manipulate at one time, the more powerful the reasoning.  In this way, working memory capacity has a direct impact on learning power.

Impact of Working Memory Issues

Here is a list of symptoms of working memory delays that might help you understand where your child stands.

Here are several examples of how an underdeveloped working memory might affect a student adversely:

  • Reading comprehension is a challenge because the information that is gathered at the outset, is forgotten by the end.
  • Students might have difficulty reading, with issues like struggling over a particular word, overcoming the obstacle, but then facing the same word again a few sentences later with no recollection.
  • Students may have trouble with multi-step directions. They also might have trouble focusing and maintaining attention.
  • Basic math and step-by-step solution processes might be difficult to understand and repeat.

For students who experience working memory issues, there are wonderful programs that can help strengthen working memory and thereby improve learning of math and reading. Cogmed and Fast ForWord are both excellent, established practices for improving working memory. Each is based on extraordinary research, and each can boast of an impressive success rate.

Coping with Working Memory Issues at Home

There are also things that parents can do with the children at home, if there is concern about the child’s working memory. Here are a few strategies that parents might try:

  • Create routines around the house. Routines help to circumvent working memory problems as the task becomes so automatic there is no need for additional working memory function.
  • Limit the amount of information that a child needs to remember in each moment. If there are three items on the list, tell them each item one at a time, and in the order they need to be arranged or completed.
  • Any time you give the child directions, have them repeat the directions back to you. This is a wonderful memory exercise as well as a great communication moment as it allows the parent to understand if the child processed the directions they were being told.
  • Encourage the use of memory aids, like class notes, post-its, flashcards, and teacher handouts. Get a sense of how the child prefers to organize information or if there is a particular system to which they are more inclined to respond.
  • Provide information in a multi-sensory way: say it, show it—sing it, if you can.
  • Make the information more personal for the child. Use examples that make sense. A city kid might not understand an exercise about cows in the field. Turn that into cars in the street. Understanding the information provided allows children more opportunity to create usable memories.
  • Allow your child to capture the information that they need not remember on their phones or in their notes. Let them know that it is not crucial to “remember everything”—again, this is the difference between working memory and long-term memory in the digital age.

Perhaps the most important lesson to pass on to your child at home is the understanding of why working memory is important, and, if the child has working memory weaknesses,

And from there, looking at ways to exercise and improve working memory.

Invest in Strengthening Working Memory

It is important to focus on strategies to best overcome those weaknesses. Focus on the success of small steps and the victories inherent in workable strategies.

Working memory is a cognitive skill that will respond to training. Learn more about working memory training here.