Tag Archives: IQ

Working Memory in Children

Horror! My daughter has poor working memory

Apparently my 6 year old daughter has a poor working memory and this is holding her back in her class at school and has the potential to impact her entire schooling career.

At a parent/teacher meeting a little before Christmas, my daughter’s teacher said that she was very much behind the other children in her class. She struggles with group activities and hides behind the abilities of her peers. Finally, she dropped the bomb shell “There may be something wrong with her and we’d like your permission to put her on a watch list”.

WHAT!? Apart from being very unhelpful just to say “there may be something wrong with your daughter” and not to mention that this is the first anyone has mentioned about Olivia having a problem, where’s the help!? Where’s the advice for her parents to help her!?

After I’d had a chance to calm down I did some research and found that it’s actually fairly common and I even noticed some of the struggles I’ve had in my own life may well be caused by a poor working memory which also would explain where Olivia got it from as it’s apparently genetic.

What follows is a parcel of the information I found out when researching the possible problem(s) and what I could help do about it.

What is working memory?

Working memory is the kind of mental blank page we use to carry out temporary calculations, ordering and list making in our heads.

  • When we add two numbers together in our heads, we mentally write them down, perform  the calculation and come out with the answer.
  • When counting a scattering of beads, we use working memory to hold in our heads all the beads we’ve already counted so we don’t count them again.
  • It’s where we hold directions someone gives us to get somewhere. “take the second left, then right at the clock tower…”

Working memory shouldn’t be confused with short term memory (though it does use it and they are related) – Working memory allows us to take what’s in our short term memory and manipulate it (e.g. perform calculations, re-order or in some way modify the items in it).

What are the symptoms of poor working memory in children

The following symptoms were suggested on the Parenting Science page on working memory and it was these symptoms that stood out for me with Olivia.

  • Has normal social relationships with peers
    – Olivia has excellent friendships and gets on well with kids of all ages.
  • Is reserved during group activities in the classroom and sometimes fails to answer direct questions
    – This is the big point her teacher raised with us. Olivia really doesn’t participate in class activities.
  • Finds it difficult to follow instructions
    – Olivia can find this very difficult if they involve several non-linear steps
  • Loses track during complicated tasks and may eventually abandon these tasks – Olivia has never got on with jigsaws and even seems to have difficulty in remembering and working out which pieces are corner and edge pieces.
  • Makes place-keeping errors (skipping or repeating steps)
    – This was a classic for Olivia. Ever since she started learning to count, she often accidentally counts things twice or three times or misses items. She also struggles in basic maths such as knowing or being able to work out which number comes between 5 and 7 for example.
  • Shows incomplete recall
    – Something that we’ve been worried about for a while, when asked what she did this morning or yesterday or in fact 10 minutes ago, Olivia will almost always say “I can’t remember”. She might remember bits, but then she makes the rest up and her tales of things that happened or she did yesterday can become the most fantastical stories of adventure and calamity.
  • Appears to be easily distracted, inattentive, or “zoned out”
    – She gets easily discouraged but I’d not say she was inattentive or zoned out, but if she knows she’s going to struggle with something, she’ll give up straight away rather than persevere. Something that I find most distressing after reading about the importance of perseverance in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”.
  • Has trouble with activities that require both storage (remembering) and processing (manipulating information)
    – On another website, I found a very quick adult test for this: without looking at the screen, add 23 and 79 in your head. I spent a good three or so minutes and in the end gave up. My working memory for maths is awful. I find that I can hold the two numbers, but as soon as I add the 3 and the 9 together, I forget what the starting numbers were and have to re-visualise the 23 and 79 but then I’ve lost the 3+9 so have to do that again. Now I’ve lost the originals… repeat and get frustrated.

It is worth pointing out that the web pages (see references at the bottom of this article) suggested that working memory deficiencies may be the underlying cause of other things such as:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) – Can’t sit still? won’t pay attention? Struggles or resists following instructions?
    It is important to point out that working memory can be a symptom or ADHD as well as the other way around, so advice remains to seem appropriate expert help
  • Dyslexia and other learning difficulties – missing words in a sentence while reading? Getting two letters mixed up (my daughter keeps getting “b” and “d” mixed up)?
    In “Understanding working memory” by Gathercole and Alloway (2007) they claim that up to 70% of kids who are diagnosed with learning difficulties have poor working memory capacity.

It is important to point out that poor working memory does not mean the child has a low IQ (phew!). The problem is  that it can look like the child has poor IQ because they struggle to learn without special attention and methods geared towards their needs.

Working memory can also be specific to different sensory channels. For example, a child might be fine remembering and replaying the sequence of visual queues, but given the same queues by sound instead of vision and suddenly they can’t remember it at all. This is why, when you’re playing games and doing exercises specifically to develop and train their working memory (see the section at the bottom of this article) it is especially important that you do so using all their sensory channels (visual, auditory and touch at least) .

What can I do to help my daughter’s working memory

From what I’ve been reading it seems that working memory may or may not be a fixed thing so lets, for the sake of my sanity and the need to feel like I can do something to help my daughter, assume that it isn’t and that with work and practice we can help her.

There are lots of “brain training” type ideas, games, exercises and programs available and the argument that working memory is fixed is based on the idea that while doing the exercises and games will improve the person’s ability to do that exercise or game; it doesn’t seem to extend into other areas of related brain usage.

let’s put that aside for the time being and focus on the exercises and games that may or may not help, because doing something is sure as anything better than doing nothing!


CogMed is a computerised training system provided by Pearson that claims to help train children who have poor working memory. In my reading, it came up quite a lot and their website and offerings are specifically dedicated to helping children with working memory difficulties.

While reviews are mixed on it’s effectiveness, there is a deal of research and work going in to it and it may be a good avenue to pursue. I may well give them a ring about my daughter and see what we can do and whether I can afford it.

Exercises and Games to improve working memory

Here are some ideas of games and exercises that I came across or thought of during my research about Olivia’s working memory:

  • I went shopping and I bought…
    In this classic memory game, the 1st person starts the game by saying “I went shopping and I bought one…” and adds something they bought (apple for example). The next person continued with “I went shopping and I bought one apple and two…” and they add the next one. This continues each person reciting all the previous shopping items and then adding the next until they can’ remember. It’s a fun game, especially when you make the things you buy outrageous or fantastical.
  • Pairs
    Another classic memory game where you have a selection of pairs of cards. Shuffle them and spread them out face down. Each person takes turns to turn over two cards with the aim of turning over two matching pairs which you keep and have another go. The winner is the person who has the most pairs. One really fun thing to do is to create your own set focussing on words, letters, numbers or anything else and getting them printed. I use Moo.com as you can order 50 cards with 50 different faces (or 25 if you’re creating a pairs card deck). I saw one set once where the person had had photos of various family members printed on the cards, so it was find two “grannies” or “daddies”. What fun!
  • Circle all the letters/words on a page in 30 seconds
    This one I picked up on the ncld.com website and couldn’t be simpler – grab a newspaper or magazine page and have your child find and circle all the “a” (or any other) letters. Or perhaps circle all the “the”s.
  • The Missing item
    Again, another classic children’s game – get several small items and put them on a tray. Give the child 30 seconds to look at the tray and try and remember all the items on it. Have them close their eyes and you then remove one item. Have them open their eyes and try and remember which item has been removed.

O playing "The Missing Item" with me to help work on her working memory deficiency

  • Repetition
    I didn’t say they’d all be fun but repetition is a child with working memory problems’ best friend. Be it vocabulary, times tables, or the order of the planets, repetition will eventually have the items and order  embedded in their long term memory.
  • Sequence games
    Give the child a series of colours and ask them to recite the order back to you (it helps if you have a good working memory as well, so this is one game that I’ll struggle with). Of course it doesn’t have to be colours. It could be letters, numbers, words etc.

Remember to use all the sensory faculties when helping train their working memory.

  • Make some coloured cards and have your her show them to you in the same order you showed her. Then repeat it verbally without reference to the cards.
  • Have her close her eyes and then ask her to tell you the order in which you touched her (left elbow, top of head, left hand, right foot etc.)

One thing I’m particularly bad at is charting and yet it is a very effective motivator for kids. From this day onwards, I hearby declare that I will be creating a big chart for Olivia to show her progress and allow here to earn gold stars.

Other ways to help improve working memory

  • Diet
    There is much evidence for the goodness of fish oils (Omega 3, 6 and 9) in brain and memory development, so see if you can introduce more oily fish into her diet or perhaps some child friendly supplements (do check that they’re suitable for your child or preferably ask a doctor).
  • Exercise
    There is evidence that the increased blood flow caused by strenuous exercise makes memory more efficient and while I’m not sure about how effective this is, I’m going to be giving it a go by taking Olivia to the park and playing some running around games and then coming back to some memory games and exercises. Every little helps right?
  • Computer games
    The advice on this one was that exploratory and “mission” type games where you have to explore a level and find items to use elsewhere and remember where stuff is can really help train the working memory. I always hated these games as a kid because I was rubbish at them (which, as I have a rubbish working memory, now makes perfect sense!). Monkey Island? Pah!

Since Christmas, O’s school have started extra classes for her and some of her classmates who are likewise behind. It’s actually a great sign that she’s at a good school. We’ve also added (poor sausage) extra maths and english homework to her after class routine as well as weekends. At our parent-teacher meeting in March, her teacher said that she had improved, but that she was merely maintaining her position in relation to the rest of her classmates. That said, several of the other kids have slipped and she’s no longer at the bottom.

It’s hard work for O and for us and I really hope that our perseverance (something that she was also criticised for) pays off for her.

Further reading on working memory in kids

The National Centre for Learning Disabilities has several articles about working memory and the one on helping children with working memory difficulties is one I have used heavily for my research and this article.

The CogMed has lots of stuff about working memory and of course their products, but it is worth a look.

ParentingScience.com had some very interesting stuff and the poor working memory symptom identification points I used above.

I really recommend a good Google on the subject as there are lots of pages out there about it.