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.