Working memory lets you keep ideas in your mind. You might need to remember your grocery list, a set of instructions, something you’re reading, or a phone number. These might be things you remember for just a couple of seconds – long enough to dial that phone number. They might also be pieces of information that you need to put together, like the story you’re reading. Working memory makes it possible to remember instructions, look at alternative ways of doing things, multi-task and connect what’s happening with things in the future and things in the past. When you think about all of this, you can see how important working memory is to learning and functioning in everyday life.
People with weak working memory may lose or forget things frequently – “Was I supposed to do that for homework?”, “Where are my shoes?”. They may be people with lots of unfinished activities. Working memory problems can make joining in conversation really challenging – “What did that person just say, oops, I forgot what I was going to add…” You’ll find that they are the people who tend to interrupt others a lot – if they don’t blurt it out, the ideas will be lost.
Here are some things you can do with your child to work on Working Memory:
- Try out different ways to help remember. Some people find it helpful to make a picture in their heads – to visualize. Visualizing tends to be really helpful when you’re reading and putting the pieces of information together. But, you can picture steps in a sequence of activities, items on your grocery list … the possibilities are just about endless. Sometimes, it’s helpful just to say things over and over to yourself until you’re finished the task – “go and get your shoes, coat and backpack, go and get your shoes, coat and back pack, go and get ……”. Putting information into a rhythm or melody can help with certain kinds of information. I find putting phone numbers into a rhythm really helps my recall. Another way of helping your memory for information is to act it out. For example, you can act out directions or steps taken by a character in a story. Chunking is another strategy – group information together into chunks and it’s easier to remember. For example, a phone number can be 289 778 212 – three chunks rather than nine numbers – it also helps to know that the first three numbers usually relate to an area of a state, province or department. and
- Make connections. This can mean chunking pieces of information together so you have fewer ‘bits’ to remember. For example, help yourself remember things for school by noticing the things you need for school are b+p+l+3s’s – that is you need your books, pens, lunch, snack, and shoes and socks for gym. You might make visual connections between the things – visualize yourself ready for school from head to toe with everything in place. Another technique is to visualize things you want to remember in different locations in a familiar room – in your livingroom, books are on the coffee table, pens are on the couch, lunch is on the desk, etc. Here’s an example of how a teacher is helping children use different strategies to help themselves remember
- Develop consistent routines. When you use the same routine over and over, it doesn’t take as much working memory. So by developing consistent routines, you’ll eventually work through them without even thinking.
- Use checklists. It’s not cheating to use checklists. Just write down the things you need to remember and check each one off once it’s completed. Having checklists also means that you’re not overloading your working memory and can have more capacity for other executive functions.
- Play memory-enhancing games. There are lots of games that are fun and help you improve your working memory. I’ve listed some in the next section for you to try out.
- Model your own working memory strategies. Talk out loud in front of your children about how you help yourself remember things. Say things over and over (like phone numbers) so you can help recall them. Talk about making connections and associations to help yourself remember – “Okay, when we’re at the grocery store, let’s make a picture in my head of the fresh produce section … okay, I need bananas, onions, lettuce, peppers, cucumber and tomatoes … That’s six things and it’s b+c+l+o+p+t.” Talk about anyway you help yourself, even if it might seem odd to other people – if it works for you, it might work for them. If nothing else, your children will see that you too have to work to remember things.