Why Is Working Memory Important?


Does this sound familiar: You ask your child to set the table, put their laundry away, or  hang up his jacket. Five minutes later, you issue a reminder. Another five minutes pass, another reminder. After half an hour since your first request—the table still bare, the laundry still piled in the laundry basket, the jacket still on the floor by the door—you lose it, “I’ve asked you three times. Why aren’t you listening? Why are you ignoring me?”

Your child may answer, “I forgot,” which really sends you over the edge. “Impossible! I just asked you three times! You can’t forget that quickly!” But, for kids with limited working memory, this is exactly what happens.  Working memory, the part of short term memory by which people absorb, process and use information, is critical for effective executive functioning. And yet, many children struggle to retain and use information, even for short periods of time, making it challenging to follow simple instructions.

Our working memory holds onto information as we carry out tasks, remembering all of the steps along the way. Though we all may forget some pieces of information from time to time, a student who struggles with working memory, simply cannot retain multiple steps in his memory at once.

Imagine what it must be like for these students in the classroom.  The teacher illustrates a long division math problem, explaining the equation format, which number “goes into” which number, multiply, subtract the difference, bring down the next number, etc. The order, the columns, the sequence. This can be overwhelming for a student who struggles to remember the multiple calculations involved with all of those steps, with all of those numbers, always in the correct order.

These students are not being difficult, or lazy, or oppositional. They are not ignoring you. They are simply unable to hold all of that information in their brains at once for a sustained time period. Compounding this issue is the fact that many students with limitations in working memory also struggle with other learning challenges.

While it is important to understand the limits of your child’s working memory, this is a skill that can be developed. There are many ways to help boost your child’s working memory, but here are a few to get started:

  1. Make connections. Find ways to attach information to long term memory, not just working memory
  2. Write it down. Making a visual reference can help your child approach the steps to solve a math problem or the tasks he needs to do at home
  3. Practice! Practice working memory with your child using memory games, card games, matching games
  4. Visualize. Suggest that your child attach an image to a task or a thought, making it easier to remember

There are many other strategies to strengthening working memory, or you may come up with your own ideas. Like any skill, students can improve with hard work, practice, and persistence. And you may just find that, when you practice with your child, your working memory improves also. Bonus!