Does your child tend to forget things they need to do, either at home or in school? A lot of children, especially those with learning differences, need help with remembering. If you’ve heard a specialist say your child has weak “working memory,” continue reading to learn some ideas for how you can help your child. Luckily, there are many things parents and teachers can do to help children develop their working memory.
What is working memory? It’s a person’s ability to hold things in their mind long enough to complete a task.
Obviously, having working memory is important throughout life, but not everyone has strong working memory. Working memory is one of several executive function (EF) skills that involve cognition (thinking). Our executive function skills help us navigate through life. Other EF cognitive skills include planning/prioritization, organization, and time management.
To get an idea about your child’s working memory, answer the following questions:
Does your child remember what to do when they arrive home? (e.g. hang up jacket, put away backpack, wash hands, etc.)
Does your child remember the questions you ask and try to give an appropriate response?
Does your child remember the instructions or directions you gave them a minute earlier?
Can your child recall at least two important details after reading a chapter?
Can your child follow directions with at least 3 parts (e.g. take out the cereal, take out a bowl, pour the cereal into the bowl)
Does your child remember their after-school and weekend plans?
Does your child remember to do (and turn in!) assignments?
Can your child memorize facts and information? (e.g., spelling words, math facts)
If you answered “no” to some (or most… or all) of these questions, there’s a good chance your child has a weak working memory.
Now you’re wondering, “what can I do to help my child?”
There are many things you can do with your child to develop their working memory. You don’t have to wait until they’re having difficulty in school. Parents can start focusing on strengthening their children’s working memory at an early age, even before they start school.
3 Strategies Parents Can Use to Develop Children’s Working Memory
1. Use multi-sensory approaches
Present your child with information (including instructions) in various modalities. The more senses they use to gather information, the better they will be able to remember it.
Let’s say you want your child to remember a short list of chores they need to do, but they have trouble remembering each of them and you end up repeating your request. Instead of getting frustrated, there are other multisensory techniques you can use to help them remember.
To implement their sense of sight, make a little poster that includes pictures of each of the chores (a person sweeping, the dishwasher, someone making a bed) or write out a list or chart they can read.
To engage their hearing, verbally explain each chore you’d like them to do. You can also have your child repeat the chores back to you. If you're old enough, you might remember this from Sesame Street!
You can also have your child write down the chores while you tell them what you need them to do. Then they should keep the list nearby and check off tasks as they complete them. Crossing off items on lists after they're accomplished can be rewarding!
Try two approaches. If your child doesn’t remember to do each of the chores, add to or change how you present the chores. By giving your child techniques to remember what they need to do, you should be able to step back and reduce your nagging.
2. Make up silly sentences or acronyms
Let’s say your child needs to pack their lunch, sports bag, or backpack. Have them come up with a silly sentence they can use to recall what they need to include.
My son and I discussed what he would need to pack in his lunch. We came up with, “a protein (like cheese, yogurt, or turkey), drink, vegetable, and treat (dessert).” Then together we came up with this sentence he’ll use to remember each thing item: “power liquid makes a healthy, happy tummy!” (power = protein, liquid= drink, healthy= vegetable, happy= treat/dessert) Repeating the silly sentence in his mind (or out loud) and linking the words to the items they represent will help him remember what he needs to pack in his lunch.
Silly sentences and acronyms are REALLY helpful when studying. I’ll never forget the names of the Great Lakes, thanks to the acronym HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior).
3. Play games
You can start playing memory games with your child when they are very young.
One of my favorites is memory match, or what some people call “concentration.” I actually play this game with my students as a warm-up or activity during a short break (little do they know they’re “working!”). To play, place pairs of picture cards face down in rows (be sure to mix them up before putting them down). Take turns trying to find the matching cards. The younger the child, the fewer cards you should put out.
By playing memory match, your child will need to keep the pictures and their locations in their minds while the cards are face down and then recall them later in order to pick up two matching cards in one turn. One of my students says what each of the pictures represents when he turns over the cards, which helps him remember where they are on the board. All on his own, he came up with a multisensory way to improve his memory!
The great thing about memory match is that students can make their own version of the game to use when studying. They can match terms with definitions or images, or words in English with the translations of the words in the language they’re studying. In “Helpful Links” below, I provide the links to a couple of free online versions of matching games students can utilize to create their own matching games, but they can also use old-fashioned index cards. Writing out the words and definitions (or drawing pictures) is a great way to study while preparing to play the game. Here's a game my son used to study for a science test:
Working memory doesn’t develop overnight. Try to be patient, empathetic, and compassionate with your child as you go through some trial-and-error to find something that works to help their memory. If they start to have difficulty remembering things in school, suggest they try some of the techniques they’ve used at home.
What working memory strategy are you going to try with your child first? Please share in the comments!