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Can “Working Memory” Problems Cause Difficulty in School?

Memory is a complicated process. Most of us are familiar with short-term memory, the place where new information goes before it gets stored in long-term memory for later use. Most psychologists now agree that there is yet another component of memory called “working memory.”


When you need to actually manipulate facts in your brain, your brain must move that related information into working memory. For example, when you add several numbers together without writing them down, you must keep them in your working memory while you add them.


Many children with attention problems have problems with their working memory.  This is because the working memory is very limited in how much information it can hold and manipulate at one time.  If that memory space is being filled with extraneous information because of inability to focus on what is important, working memory cannot function properly.  In the example above, something in working memory (like the numbers you are adding) gets pushed out of memory and replaced with unimportant information (someone is using the microwave to cook popcorn).  This prevents finding the answer, because important information is no longer available to work the problem.


If this is a problem for your son or daughter, you may be able to help. Your child will benefit from having a quiet, distraction-free place to work on schoolwork.  For tips on how to do this see How Parents Can Help With Homework. Your child also needs to know basic facts and procedures on an automatic level because working memory space can get completely filled with basic information (add, subtract, multiply, divide, academic vocabulary, etc.), and there is no room left for solving the problems. 


I just read that it is possible to improve a child’s working memory. While I have not tried it with a student, it does make a lot of sense. I will tell you all about it soon!


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#1 Courtney 2011-11-10 15:45
Looking forward to hearing about how it may be possible to improve a child's working memory. Thanks for this post! :-)

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