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When reading an academic textbook, students often lose track of the meaning, because there is too much information to hold in working memory. If the words in the text are already known and understood, the meaning is clear. The problem occurs when they come to an unfamiliar word and must stop reading to consider its meaning. A typical scenario goes like this. The student stops reading to think about the new word. He looks it up in an online dictionary, considers what it means, holds it in memory, and returns to the reading. By the time he begins reading, however, the meaning of the word is lost. Each of us has a limited capacity to hold information in working memory, and within seconds the information is lost. This strategy for reading an academic text does not always work well. Here is a different approach to try.

Pretend that the science textbook your daughter is reading says, “The momentum of the train traveling at 30 miles per hour is much greater than the momentum of the car moving at the same speed.” To totally understand this, she needs to understand the concept of momentum. When she looks it up, she finds that momentum is the product of an object’s mass times its velocity. Here is where her strategy needs to vary. Instead of holding that information in memory while trying to apply it to the sentence, she should write it in the margin or jot it on a small sticky note stuck in the margin of the book. When she rereads the sentence, she should read, “The mass times velocity of the train…is much greater than the mass times velocity of the car…” This takes only a few seconds longer than the original strategy, but the result is that she understands the meaning now, since she already knows the meaning of mass and velocity. This does not require her to work with so much information in working memory. She can use her working memory to understand the concept which is what she needs to do.

In general, writing down information that is filling up the working memory capacity is a great strategy. If asked to identify the adjectives and adverbs in a passage, writing a short definition of each can help with the task. Many students have difficulty reading academic textbooks, and using this strategy can help with comprehension.

Adolescents with ADHD or working memory problems often have trouble getting ready for school in the morning. They often forget to take important things to school like their book bag, homework, and clothes for gym. Mornings are chaotic and create stress for both parents and children. Morning and evening routines at home can help, and the beginning of the school year is a great time to establish those routines.

The goal is to have your child ready to leave for school with everything he needs when he gets there. The first step is to determine what he will need for school. This might be best accomplished the night before as part of his bedtime routine. Until he is able to do this for himself, you will need to help. Ask him about each of his classes to determine if there is homework or a project due. Discuss extracurricular activities such as sports to make sure he has completed everything he needs or has the appropriate supplies or equipment ready. Organize everything and place it beside the door or in the car, if appropriate. He should go to bed at the same time each night knowing he is ready for the next day.

Your child needs to wake up to get ready for school at the same time every day. The morning routine should stay the same to the extent possible, and she should be ready to leave for school with some time to spare. Since the evening routine included getting everything ready to take to school, the morning routine can focus on getting ready and eating a nutritious breakfast. Plans for lunch need to be settled before she leaves, as well.

Routines like this lead to forming habits that can last a lifetime. For children with attention or working memory problems, good habits are extremely important. They need to do these things by themselves without even thinking about it, but it will take a lot of help from you to get to that point. Each child is unique and the time it will take to change these evening and morning routines into habit will vary. You can begin by giving oral instructions (one at a time) each day and then later move to checklists that your child uses on his own. Much later, after a great deal of practice, he may be able to manage without help. Keep in mind that there are plenty of adults who rely on checklists, and there is nothing wrong with it!

Establishing routines that form into habits can lead to success in school. The morning and evening routines help students get to school on time with everything they need. I will write soon about homework completion, which is another important part of every teen’s day during the school year.

Last week’s blog, Returning to School After a Concussion (Part 1), was about concussions and how difficult it is for students to catch up with schoolwork after the necessary extended absence for cognitive rest. Once students return to school, the doctor’s orders typically include limiting screen time, limiting exposure to bright lights and loud sounds, no participating in physical activity, taking frequent rest breaks, and spending shorter days in school. Some of this is easy to do, but there are some accommodations that seem almost impossible. I want to share with you some of the solutions our teachers have come up with to help these students.

If your child suffers from a concussion, he will need one-on-one help with each teacher when he returns to school. It always amazes me how much you can get done with a student when working in a tutorial setting. Our teachers have been willing to exempt their students from doing every assignment once they feel comfortable that they know the concepts covered in these tutorials. Teachers should select the assignments that are essential and only require the student to complete these.

Some students have returned to school after their required absence and stayed the whole day, but others come in for half days until they are completely well. Students should be allowed to rest their head on the table if it begins to hurt. The students I have worked with this year say that they can work for about 20-30 minutes before they need a rest. When they do rest, however, they can work more without hurting.

If the lights from the interactive projector are hurting their head, they should be allowed to look away from the bright light. Other students can provide copies of the notes when needed, and they can still listen to what is being said.

Limiting screen time to no more than 30 minutes per day is the most difficult accommodation to make. Most teachers expect students to use their computer for watching videos, doing research, writing papers, taking notes, and a myriad of other activities which adds up to a lot more than half an hour. To limit screen time requires some creativity on the part of the teacher to find ways to give equally valuable assignments that do not require computer time. Here are some ideas from our teachers.

  • Work in small groups to do projects rather than each student completing everything. This allows the student with a concussion to be coordinator of the group’s work, conduct oral interviews, hand-write ideas that another student can type, create posters, or make voice recordings instead of typing work on the computer.
  • Take assessments orally instead of on the computer or have an aide read the questions and type the answers.
  • Create a flow chart, outline, or timeline by hand instead of writing an essay at the computer.
  • Work with a partner when doing internet research. Both students can think of search terms and evaluate the quality of the search results. The partner can read aloud what they find, and both can decide what needs to be included in the final product.

As I mentioned last week, the most important thing to do for your child who is recuperating from a concussion is to assure her that you will be there to help. It is frightening to feel so completely out of control of what is happening to you. The best students have a difficult time when they know what they need to do to get caught up, but they are not allowed to do it. As a parent, you need to help her understand that if she follows the doctor’s orders, she will get well faster.

Enlist the help of your school’s counselor or special education supervisor so he can inform all your child’s teachers about her needs. Email her teachers when she has a rough night after spending the day at school. Multiple students have reported to me that they go home after a half day of school and sleep all afternoon because they are exhausted. Teachers need to know when this happens. Additionally, encourage your child’s teachers to read An Educator’s Guide to Concussions in the Classroom. This guide will help them understand that concussions are serious and should not be treated lightly.

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Most people feel strongly that they are either good at math or that they are terrible at it. They think that math ability is genetic and cannot be changed. An interesting new research study suggests that this might not be true.

Scientists tested students on a variety of math concepts. They tested some of the same concepts with number problems and word problems. Many times the students could work the problem if it was just a number problem, but they could not work it if it was in a word problem. The data also shows that there was not much correlation between various concepts in math. This means most people could easily work certain kinds of problems and not others.

Research like this often creates more questions than it answers. For example, why could a person work number problems but not word problems that require the exact same math concept? (Could difficulty with reading be the issue? Was it too much information to hold at one time in working memory? How can someone be good at working algebra but not geometry? Is it because the two types of math are really very different from one another? Is it because some underlying knowledge needed in the geometry is missing?) These questions are not specifically answered in the research, but it does offer some interesting findings.

The researchers feel their research gives hope to those who feel they are not good in math. Many students in their study could do some kinds of math but not others. The researchers believe this relates to how much time and practice the students had on the various concepts. They believe that most people can do well in math if given enough time to practice. They do not feel it relates to genetics. You are not born good at math; you get good at math with practice.

I suggest that students should keep practicing math problems from the various types of math. There are many apps available for free or very little money. Here is a review of five apps for middle school students, and here are some for upper school students. Find an app that is fun to use that keeps earlier math skills fresh. There is a good chance that you will become a better math student if you are willing to do some additional practice.


Most adults remember learning their times tables and to this day can easily tell you what 7 x 8 equals. Many can also name all the Great Lakes by recalling the acronym “HOMES.” When spelling, I always remember “i” before “e” except after “c,” or when sounded like “a” as in neighbor and weigh.

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal by David G. Bonagura Jr., a New York teacher and writer: "What’s 12 x 11? Um, Let Me Goggle That" (WSJ, Op-Ed, October 31, 2013). The focus of this article is that practice, memorization, and drill are often replaced by the ability to quickly find answers electronically. In many ways, modern teaching theories have replaced memorization and drill with “discovery” and “child-centered” learning. Mr. Bonagura’s argument is that memorization and drill have been viable parts of education around the world for centuries, and still have a significant and valuable place in modern teaching.

I couldn’t agree with him more! As an early elementary teacher, I believe in the important balance of “discovery learning” and the ability to recall facts. Not only do memorization and drill help a child easily remember and retrieve facts, they serve as exercises in perseverance and self-discipline. And, those are qualities that serve a child well beyond any classroom setting!

What do you think?


> Drill and Practice the Basics: Keys to Student Success

> Multiplication Practice Sheets


Does your child have difficulty remembering school lessons, homework assignments, spelling words, etc.? Her memory is probably just fine, and you can help her it prove to herself by teaching her how to play a fun memory game.

Children are typically much better at this game than adults. Once your child understands the game, he can challenge any adult in the family, and will usually win every time! Confidence in memory skills can be a great help with completing and understanding school work.

All that’s needed is a deck of playing cards and two players.

Here’s how to play:

  • From the deck, take out all the cards of one particular suit (for example, all spade cards including ace, king, queen, and jack for a total of 13). Shuffle them, and place them facedown on a table in three columns, four across, with a lone card at the bottom.
  • From the remaining cards in the deck, take out all cards of another suit (all heart cards, including the ace, king, queen, and jack), shuffle them, and form a small deck which is kept in a pile, facedown.
  • Put away all remaining cards.
  • Take turns selecting cards from the top of the small deck. Then select and turn over just one table card, trying to find a match (a ten of hearts from the small deck must match a ten of spades, etc). Both players get to see both cards. If it’s a match, the winner gets to keep the cards. If it’s not a match the table card is put back, facedown, in exactly the same spot on the table. The unmatched deck card goes to the bottom of the deck.
  • Since both players get to see the overturned table cards, an important aspect of this game is remembering the exact location of the table cards when they are put back, facedown.
  • The game continues until all cards are matched. Whoever has the most cards at the end wins.

This game is great fun, and will convince any child that she has a wonderful memory!


> Hands-on Math Games: A Fun Way To Improve Skills

> Improve Math Skills With a Deck of Cards

Students do better in school when they know their basic facts to an automatic level. If your child has to first figure out the basic information, then that information is what occupies her working memory. For example, if asked to write an academic paragraph about owning a pet, she should be thinking about the responsibilities of pet ownership. If she is instead thinking about how to write an academic paragraph, then her efforts go into creating the correct structure instead of making the paragraph interesting.

This helps us to understand why algebra students who drill five minutes at the beginning of each period on basic math facts do better in algebra. They can use their working memory for figuring out how to solve the algebra problem instead of trying to remember what seven times eight is or what the factors of 81 might be.

There is so much material to teach in each course that teachers often do not have the time to do drill and practice of basic information. This applies in all subjects. There is a tremendous amount of vocabulary to learn in science, dates and places in history, and rules of grammar and punctuation in writing. Whatever the subject, there is a body of knowledge that is considered “basic.” Without this basic information, higher-level thinking becomes too difficult to manage. (This can also apply to skills like handwriting, keyboarding, and reading.)

Parents can be great helpers with this task. My husband tells the story about how hard it was for him to learn his multiplication facts when he was in elementary school. He said that he would sit on a stool in the kitchen while his mother made dinner each night. She would call out the facts to him over and over again until he knew them. You might think that this would be torture to a child, but my husband remembers this time as being very special. He knew that his mother had a lot to do when she got home from work, yet she spent this time helping him be better prepared for school.

Students can learn strategies to do independently, as well. A previous blog shows how to use pictures to help learn vocabulary and this printable vocabulary chart tool can be adapted for most any drill and practice activity.

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Working memory is not a new topic for my blog. I have mentioned it several times before. It is an important topic to learn about because students who have working memory issues often struggle more in school. Essentially, “working memory” is the place in the brain where information is held while being used to do a task.


If I ask my student to write an academic paragraph about the story we just read, he will need to remember the pieces of an academic paragraph as well as what happened in the story. This might go beyond the limits of his working memory. One strategy I teach my students in this situation is to first write down the pieces of an academic paragraph. That way they do not have quite so much to manipulate in working memory. For a better understanding of what it is, read my earlier post called Can Working Memory Problems Cause Difficulty in School? 


I recently ran across an interesting website that claims that working memory (and thus intelligence) can be improved by playing a game called Dual-N-Back


To play Dual-N-Back, you have to remember two things at one time. You have to remember where a box appears on the screen as well as what letter is said. (In the beginning, you have to remember what keys to press on the keyboard to play the game, too.) To top that off, you also have to remember not where it was the last time you saw it, but where it was two times back (or three times back)! Here are the instructions for how to play, but the easiest way to learn the game is to give it a try. I found that at first I could not do it at all, but I quickly got better as I played.


This is a challenging game and actually very fun. Even if it does not improve working memory, it can be just plain fun to play. Some have said that playing it also helps improve a child’s ability to focus his attention. If you find that to be true, let others know about it. That would be a fantastic benefit—getting to play a game that possibly improves working memory and helps focus attention. Best of all, it’s free!


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Young children take more time to process information than older kids do. Parents and teachers have a tendency to speak too quickly for them, and they get confused easily. Remember Mr. Rogers? He spoke very slowly to children, which made it easier for them to follow what he was saying.

In general, the older a child is, the quicker he is at thinking. However, not all older children process information quickly, and that can make a huge difference in the classroom.

Many students who struggle in school are struggling because everything is moving too quickly for them. This does not mean they are not smart. It simply means they need extra time to think.

Here is something you can do to figure out whether this is a problem for your child. Think about Mr. Rogers and mimic his speech pattern with your child. See if this helps him to understand what you are asking him to do. You can also limit the number of instructions you give at one time.

For example, these instructions move too quickly and include too much information at one time: “Go to the kitchen and get the silverware for dinner. Don’t forget we will need a soup spoon tonight. And use the blue napkins when you set the table.” 

It is better to divide this into shorter, slower (Mr. Rogers speed), separate statements. “Get the silverware for dinner.” (Pause) “We need soup spoons.” (Pause) “Use the blue napkins.”

Some children who think slowly never get a chance to answer a question before someone else answers it. This can happen at home with a brother or sister. It also happens in school. Parents and teachers have to deliberately structure the situation so that everyone gets a chance to speak. When I teach, I often say, “I’m going to ask a question. (Pause) I do not want anyone to answer. (Pause) Think about the answer. (Pause) Give me a thumbs-up if you know it.”

If you feel that slowing down when you speak helps your child, let her teacher know what you have discovered. Accommodations like this are simple to do and can make a big difference in school.

How do we make memories?

There are many explanations for how memory works. Memory, however, is much more complicated than any one theory can explain. I have blogged before about memory strategies as well as several times about what working memory is.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a type of memory we don’t hear much about. It’s called episodic memory. Episodic memory is the memory we have for events (or episodes) we experience. Some of the students I teach have trouble remembering facts, vocabulary, and procedures, like how to do long division. Yet, these same students can remember accurate details about a trip they took a whole year ago! They love field trips, movies, and activities that involve building or doing something. These students have a strong episodic memory. They remember what the class was doing when they were learning something. If this is true about your child, you may be able to help him learn more effectively at school by creating episodic memories.

To do this, you have to figure out how to get children to experience what they are learning. For example, instead of studying for a science test in a traditional way, your child can make up a song, rap, or creative story about the concepts. I recently had a student create a dance with music that included all the vocabulary on his upcoming exam. He received an “A” on it! He did not normally do well on tests and exams, so I asked him how he studied. He stood up and sang and danced for me! This isn’t something I would have ever done to study; that’s why memory is a complex process that we really do not fully understand.

Other things you might try are having your child make a movie, create a skit, write poetry, or paint a picture. I believe the trick for those who have strengths in episodic memory is to make something the student can tell a story about. And remember that what works for one may not work for another.

Tagged in: Livia McCoy Memory

Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?