Working Memory Difficulties

Working Memory Difficulties in Children

Humans are really amazing creatures! We have been created with this amazing ability to remember things. Most people know about short and long term memory. We have our long term memory, which is where we store a seemingly infinite amount of information we save over our lifetime. We also have our short term memory, which is where we can store an extremely limited amount of information easily and in a useable state. For example, if someone tells you their phone number, we could hold that information in our short term memory, however, many of us are likely to forget it almost instantaneously. Short term memory has a very limited capacity and duration.

Luckily, we also have working memory. Working memory is like a temporary storage part of our brain where we can hold a very small amount of information (the ‘memory’ part), while we use or manipulate the information stored (the ‘working’ part) to solve a problem or do a task.

An example of working memory is when we carry out a math sum like 26 + 21 in our head. We must hold the two numbers in our working memory, while we work out the answer. Another example of where we use our working memory, is when we are given a list of instructions to carry out. We hold that information in our working memory, to then carry out each instruction.

What Does Working Memory Have to do with Speech Pathology?

Research indicates that working memory difficulties and language difficulties often go hand in hand. This is an incredibly complex relationship to decipher. However, we do know that a child or adolescent with weak working memory are more likely to experience language and learning difficulties.

We use our working memory multiple times during the day from making a mental shopping list to working out how much change we should get when we have paid.

Children and adolescents also use their working memory to understand what they are reading, complete math sums, problem solve, follow instructions in the classroom, participate in conversations and learn new information. Working memory is critical for academic performance and success.

Signs of Working Memory Difficulties in Children

You may now be wondering whether your child might have working memory difficulties. Here are a few signs to keep an eye out for when it comes to your child’s working memory:

  • May have difficulties completing instructions with multiple steps. For example, if you ask: “Can you go and make your bed, wash your face, put your shoes on then come and eat your breakfast?” Your child may often perform one or two of the instructions then forget what else they have to do.
  • May not understand what they have read
  • May struggle to solve maths problems in their head
  • May find it difficult to copy information down from the board (for older children and adolescents)
  • May take longer to complete creative writing tasks, as they often have to stop and re-read what they have written to then plan the next part of their story.
  • May have difficulty learning their “sight / tricky words” or remembering what letters represent which sounds

What Can We Do About Working Memory Difficulties?

Most of the research indicates that children with weaker working memory, do not catch up to their peers over time. This does not mean that their own individual working memory capacity won’t increase with age. It does! However, they may still have a working memory capacity that is weaker than their peers.

There are many different programs available that promise to improve or increase a child’s working memory capacity and efficiency. However, it is important to know that current research into these programs can not agree whether a person’s working memory capacity can actually be increased in the longer term, at this stage.

Research does show that supporting a child to use their working memory more efficiently, as well as adjusting our expectations of a child with weaker working memory skills to be able hold and manipulate in their mind can be extremely useful in supporting their learning and language development.

Outlined below are some examples of overall strategies that might be beneficial to support the child or adolescent with working memory difficulties, however, it is vital that your child has a comprehensive assessment of their learning and language skills by a speech pathologist and a clinical psychologist.

Psychologists can assess a child’s working memory skills and speech pathologists can assess the impact of working memory difficulties on language and literacy development.

Every child is different, and it is important to ensure that you are implementing child specific strategies to support their language and learning.

Strategies to Support Children with Working Memory Difficulties

As mentioned above, children with working memory difficulties need to have access to the right support and strategies to help them build their skills. The following strategies can be useful for children with working memory and language learning difficulties:

Teach mental rehearsal

Adults often do this naturally. If you are told a phone number, or have made a mental shopping list, you might repeat it over and over until you can write it down, or actually pick up the item at the shops. Teaching children to do this can assist them to use their working memory more efficiently.

Limit your instructions to 1 or 2 parts and make them simple

For example saying “Put on your shoes then brush your teeth”, compared to “Before you put your shoes on, make sure you have brushed your teeth and put your lunch box, library book and glasses in your bag.”

Tell and show your child what to listen for and repeat repeat repeat

For example: “Timmy, you need to remember to do 2 things (hold up 2 fingers). One (hold up 1 finger), Put on your shoes. Two (hold up 2 fingers) brush your teeth. So, one – shoes on, two – brush teeth”

Use mnemonic or memory hacks

A mnemonic is a pattern of letters or ideas that can support memory and learning.

For example, when learning to read music, you might learn the mnemonic “FACE” to remember the names of some notes.

Write things down (particularly for older children)

Mini whiteboards are fantastic for this. As you give instructions, writing a key word for each step can offload what a child needs to remember to perform a task.

For our example above for Timmy remembering to put on his shoes and brush his teeth, you could write 1. Shoes, 2. Teeth, and he can tick the steps off as he completes them.

For children with language or literacy difficulties, even pictures can assist them to recall important information.

Connect new information with information your child already knows and has experience with

For example, when asking your child to brush their hair, do their teeth and put their shoes on, try to tell them in an order that relates to head-to-toe or some other logical sequence.

Allow children to use charts or posters with important information so they don’t have to hold that information in their mind

For example, in the classroom, use word banks, number lines or even have times tables on the wall. At home, write their schedule down, or make lists for them of their household responsibilities so they can remember everything they have to do.

Ensure your child is also working on development of their language skills as well as supporting their working memory skills

These two areas work in conjunction with each other and supporting working memory or working on language development can often have a positive impact on a child’s learning and academic performance.

Stay patient!

Often it can be extremely frustrating for parents of a child with working memory difficulties or language difficulties. Remember your child is doing the best they can with a weaker working memory.


If you have concerns regarding your child’s working memory, language or learning development, the team at A Growing Understanding are happy to investigate and assess your child or adolescent and come up with a plan that includes specific strategies for them to build their confidence. Click here to send an enquiry to our friendly CEO team today.

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