Articles, Literacy

Activities to help develop a child’s working memory

Weak working memory skills can have a negative impact across different subject areas, including reading and math. The signs of a weak working memory usually appear early on. The ‘Symptoms of weak working memory in children‘ are outlined by Nikki Bush in her article published on her website, 16 May 2016. Once identified, there is much that can be done by parents and teachers to help develop a child’s working memory and overcome this barrier to learning.

Creating an environment that is conducive to learning and teaching your child strategies that help them cope with memory requirements will go a long way in ensuring that they experience success at school and in life.

Know where your child is at

In order to meet your child where they are at, and to mediate effectively, it is important that you know your child well and understand the current limits of their working memory. If you do not know what your child’s limits are, you can begin by observing them carefully while they are doing school work, completing chores or processing instructions to follow. It will quickly become apparent if there are problems.

If your child continually loses track of what he / she is meant to be doing, is easily distracted and seems to be overwhelmed by simple tasks, then you will know that they have reached the limits of their working memory.

Help your child’s teacher to know where they are at

Be open and honest with your child’s teachers so that they also understand where your child is at. They see your child in a group setting and so the way that they experience your child and their understanding of your child may be different from yours. You have much to learn from each other about your child. The communication between teacher and parent is one way to ensure that you work as a team, for the good of your child, and that what is taught at home and school correlates. Your child’s teachers will appreciate being kept in the loop and will be much more open to cooperating when they see the understanding you have and the effort you are putting in.

Below are some suggestions for strengthening working memory skills. This is not an exhaustive list of activities. These will give you a starting point, won’t break the bank and will hopefully not make you feel overwhelmed in terms of what you should and could be doing for your struggling child. Use these suggestions as a starting point and build from here if you feel more intervention is required.

I have included additional reading links at the bottom of this article for anyone who would like to investigate further.

1. Create structure through routines

  • Routines create structure and familiarity where repetitive daily tasks need to be learned and carried out.
  • Routines lower a child’s stress levels, making their day more predictable and feel more achievable.
  • When a child is able to automate a task it means that they no longer need to rely on their working memory to get it done. This will reduce the working memory load/burden your child experiences, which frees up their working memory or cognitive space to deal with new information, learning and problem-solving.
  • Consistency goes a long way in setting up routines – ensuring same time, same steps, same sequence are all important.
  • Setting up routines will need to be done at school as well as at home. Some children struggle with routines such as keeping their desk tidy, packing up at the end of a lesson, following lineup procedures and bathroom routines.

2. Chunk information into smaller pieces.

  • Help your child to break down what is required of them.
  • Slow down the pace of the delivery of information so that they have time to process it.
  • Break tasks into smaller, simplified and more manageable chunks.
  • Address one chunk one at a time and in sequence.
  • Use simple language.
  • Be specific and keep to short simple steps or instructions.
  • It often helps to write the steps down or to create graphic organizers to depict what needs to be learned.

3. Work on visualization skills.

  • Working memory forms part of a group of skills that make up executive function.
  • According to Michael Greschler of SMARTS, visualization strategies are a powerful way to engage executive function processes.
  • This strategy works by decreasing the working memory load and freeing up cognitive space for new learning.
  • It may also decrease a child’s anxiety around task completion and performance.
  • When a child is asked to visualize something, they learn to create visual representations of what they are hearing.
  • For many children, recalling visual information is much easier than recalling auditory information, as it becomes more concrete and less abstract for them.
  • Visualization strategies are not just applicable in childhood but can be seen as the development of a life skill and coping mechanism that can be carried through to adulthood.

4. Get them to teach what they have learned.

  • To check a child’s understanding and to cement the steps of a task in their memory, it can be helpful to ask them to repeat it back to you or to teach it to you or someone else in the family.
  • Teaching forces the child to make sense of the information they are holding on to.
  • It also forces them to break the task down into steps and to place them into a logical sequence and to check themselves.
  • If they experience a hiccup in either of these two areas while teaching, the problem can be rectified before they have to actually carry out the task in real life.
  • Through the teaching process, they soon discover any missing links in their understanding. They often fill these gaps themselves right in the moment or they may ask for help. Either way, the goal will have been achieved and learning will have taken place.
  • Teaching can be seen as a trial run. Knowing that they have this opportunity to test their knowledge and understanding may also have the effect of reducing stress and anxiety levels.

5. Play card games that improve memory.

  • Games that require a child to hold on to information for later use while remembering the rules of the game are always beneficial.
  • If a child experiences enjoyment during the game they are likely to play that game repeatedly, giving lots of opportunities to practice their skills and develop their working memory. The best part of all of this is that they won’t realize that they are learning as they’ll just be having fun.
  • Games like Go Fish, Crazy Eights (how to play with a standard deck of cards), DOS and Uno are classic examples of great memory games.

6. Encourage active reading.

  • Active reading strategies can be a powerful way to help your child cope better and hold onto information for longer. They should be taught these strategies from as young as possible.
  • Making use of colour when underlining and highlighting, as well as sticky notes, can make an enormous difference to a child who struggles to hold onto information needed to answer questions.
  • Reading aloud, discussion, asking questions, creating graphical depictions of the information and consciously connecting known information with new information can help a child with working memory.
  • This type of active engagement during reading needs to be taught and practiced. Once again, this is an essential life skill that a child can carry with them through to adulthood


Visualize Executive Function by Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMART Director

Working memory: Kid Sense.

Working memory boosters: Understood.*4hwhxs*domain_userid*YW1wLUlxQWlsaXhKNzBxS3BYU3RCRzNGcnc.

Working memory? What it is and how it works?: Understood.

Additional reading

What is working memory and why is it important? by Lianne Bantjes

15 Amazing Memory Games For Kids by Parenting: First Cry

How to Help Kids With Working Memory Issues: Supportive Strategies by Rae Jacobson

Edge Toys. Educational toys for children of all ages

To explore working with Lianne in Randburg / Sandton and other areas in Johannesburgcontact her for a consultation to discuss how she can assist you.

Articles, Literacy

What is working memory and why is it important?

Two girls making use of their working memory by playing chess.

A child uses working memory to hold on to information long enough to use it. It affects a child’s ability to concentrate and complete minor, everyday tasks. Under-developed working memory skills can cause learning problems across many subjects and negatively affect a child’s school life.

Working memory is one of our cognitive systems, which has a limited capacity to hold information, for a short period of time, for use in everyday tasks. As a system, it plays a role in…

  • reasoning,
  • decision-making,
  • problem-solving,
  • learning
  • and behavior.

It is important to note that short-term memory and working memory are not the same thing.

Working memory analogy

Try to picture working memory as the surface of a desk. Obviously, the bigger the desk the more space you have to work on and the more tools, resources and information it can hold at one time. A bigger desk surface helps us to easily cope with bigger more complex tasks. While we are busy with a task we use the desk surface to organize ourselves and to hold everything we need. We can spread ourselves out and get on with the task at hand, reaching for the tools we need which are just a short distance away.

If you have an extremely large desk surface you could perhaps manage several tasks or projects at the same time, without having to pack anything away as you move between tasks.

A smaller desk surface, on the other hand, can get messy and chaotic making it hard to accommodate everything that we need or to find what we require. Sometimes we have to clear certain things off the desk to accommodate other things that we require more immediately. It becomes challenging to remain organized. The point is that each individual person’s desk has a unique capacity.

Working memory operates in a similar way. In our working memory we hold the information, tools and resources that we may need in the short term, to complete a task, make decisions, or even to problem solve. The capacity of our working memory affects what we can achieve and how easily and smoothly we are able to work. This is because it involves the processing, manipulation & transformation of verbal and visual information.

It is a bit like getting ready to bake a cake. In an ideal world, you would have enough surface space in your kitchen to lay out everything you will need – recipe, mixing bowls, mixers, spatula, whisks, baking trays, measuring spoons, sieve, scale, etc. In addition, you would be able to fit all the ingredients you will need on the countertop in an organized fashion. Ingredients such as flour, eggs, sugar, baking powder, butter, vanilla essence and salt. Having enough surface space to hold all of your baking tools and ingredients will allow you to be organized, follow the steps in the recipe sequentially and to quickly and easily produce a perfect cake. On the other hand, baking in a kitchen with very limited counter space can be challenging, complicated and messy – not impossible – but not easy. There is more room for error and failure when things are messy and chaotic. You will have to go back and forth multiple times between the cupboard and the counter to get what you need. You might have to layer things one on top of the other or place them on the floor to create more surface space to work on. It could be a bit of a juggle.

Working memory likened to getting ready to bake.

A child with a well-developed working memory is able to bring to the fore and hold on to a list of instructions, sequential information or previously learned skills and knowledge, until they are needed to complete a task. A child with an extensive working memory could manage to hold many more resources and easily and independently complete several tasks within a short space of time. In contrast, a child with a weak working memory would struggle to hold on to everything required to successfully complete a task or to follow a simple set of instructions.

Case Study 1

As teachers, we all know the child in a classroom who is left behind as the rest of the class moves to the next classroom. He hasn’t yet…

  • labeled his work,
  • hasn’t placed his work in the paper tray,
  • hasn’t returned the book he was using,
  • hasn’t packed up all his belongings,
  • hasn’t straightened his desk,
  • hasn’t pushed in his chair
  • and hasn’t put on his blazer
  • even though the teacher listed what needed doing at least 5 times.

He is the kid that is feeling anxious because…

  • he has been abandoned by his peers,
  • anxious because he knows he is now late for his next class,
  • anxious because he will probably be teased or chided in the next room,
  • feels self-conscious because he didn’t manage to follow the instructions given by the teacher,
  • is still in the classroom when the next class arrives,
  • knows that as he leaves the arriving class will have something to say,

He laughs on the outside but feels terrible on the inside.

Anxious boy with a weak working memory.

He leaves the classroom with everything haphazardly stuffed into his bag, zip wide open, his bag thrown across his back, his blazer half on and half off, he is half running – a picture of disorganization. He is now late to get settled in the next classroom. He has started off on the wrong foot yet again. This is how this poor child stumbles through their school day. It is a blur of inability and anxiety, neither of which are conducive to learning. Home is a little different perhaps. There is less anxiety but he still cannot follow simple, sequential instructions and is always in trouble because his mom has to ask repeatedly for things to be done or completed. They miss out on so much learning because their brain is busy with feeling self-conscious and anxious.

Case Study 2

The teacher asks the class to do a math equation in their heads. She asks them to add 24 and 13 and to then subtract 9. A child’s working memory allows them to visualize the numbers they are hearing (24; 13; 9) and to hold on to them long enough to manipulate them. Working memory allows the child to hold on to the addition total (the manipulation of 24 and 13) so that the 9 can be subtracted and the answer given to the teacher.

A boy doing math calculations using his working memory.

Hereafter, the child can let go of these numbers as their working memory has done its job. There is no longer a need to remember them. A child with working memory problems could have trouble at any stage of this task or at all stages, making it difficult to complete.

Weak working memory and its effect on school work and daily life

Children who have a hard time grasping sequential instructions, staying organized, prioritizing and following explicit directions and recalling how to do something they have done repeatedly may be facing difficulties with their working memory. Working memory is an executive function and plays a major role in how we process, remember and use the information to go about our daily tasks and solve life’s problems.

Working memory skills are essential to success in all aspects of the classroom, such as remembering what you heard, following a simple set of instructions, responding during a conversation, solving complicated math problems involving several steps, answering questions, holding on to an idea for use in a few moments time, holding on to information while waiting your turn and so much more.

Kid Sense identifies the following areas of learning that are greatly affected by poor working memory:

  • Maths
  • reading comprehension
  • complex problem solving
  • organizational skills
  • and assessments.

The biggest impact on school work occurs from difficulties with maths and reading comprehension (Kid Sense: Working Memory).

What can you do if your child has a weak working memory?

The good news is that a child can be helped to improve their working memory. This help can be implemented at home and at school. If the parents and teachers decide to work as a team, are consistent in their efforts and persevere over the long term there is a good chance that a child can overcome this difficulty. Obviously, the earlier working memory problems are detected the better.

For information on what you can do to help a child with weak working memory, please read my next article by CLICKING HERE.


Further reading

To explore working with Lianne in Randburg / Sandton and other areas in Johannesburgcontact her for a consultation to discuss how she can assist you.