Working memory in school aged children


By Sonali Dutta, Speech and Language Therapist



As a speech and language therapist I come across younger and older children who struggle with classroom-oriented tasks in school. When assessed by specialists, a good proportion of these children are found to have working memory difficulties. Working memory is responsible for retention and manipulation of information. As children get older, the learning-based tasks in school become more structured and complex, demanding high cognitive skills. Therefore, working memory plays a crucial role in determining children’s ability to handle learning challenges effectively. At home or in other social situations outside school, the environment is more play-based and relaxed and so the demands on working memory are likely to be less.


Working memory is one of the key cognitive processes required for effective learning and is often confused with short term memory. Short term memory is related to short-term storage of information. Whereas, according to recent research, working memory is a component of fluid reasoning i.e. ability to effectively identify key information from the task/environment and apply that knowledge. We use our working memory to register, maintain and manipulate information we see (visual) and hear (auditory) making it an integral part in our decision-making ability and behavior. Therefore, we can see how working memory skills can be closely related to achievement and learning in school aged children.

The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) measures working memory in one of its subtests for measuring intelligence. However, we should bear in mind that although working memory affects how a child learns and performs in tests, it is not a measure of a child’s overall intelligence and that the IQ (Intelligent Quotient) also has non-measurable components which do not correlate to working memory.



Working memory deficits have been linked to attention difficulties, learning difficulties (e.g. dyscalculia i.e. problems with arithmetic) and language difficulties (e.g. following complex instructions) in children. Children with working memory deficits have difficulty in tasks involving memory demands in retaining and processing specific or structured information. Therefore, subjects such as maths, reading and science may be particularly difficult for these children. Attention, auditory and visual perception and concentration are required for successful processing of information.

The article ‘Working memory in the classroom’ by psychology professor Susan E Garthercole highlights a study where the teachers described children with working memory problems as having attentional problems. This shows that the underlying working memory issues in children can be masked as attentional problems and are likely to remain unidentified and unaddressed. The article further mentions that ‘zoning out’ or ‘mind-wandering’ are common behaviours in children with low working memory capacity when performing a highly demanding cognitive task as they cannot cope with the information overload and fail to complete the task.

Children with working memory difficulties may show the following signs:

·         Struggles to follow complex verbal instructions in a classroom.

·         Has problems in the area of maths, reading (comprehension) and science.

·         Takes longer than peers to complete tasks or does not completing tasks.

·         Has attentional difficulties.

·         Gives delayed responses to complex questions/instructions.

·         Provides non-specific answers.

·         Comes across as being disorganized

·         Comes across as being forgetful.



Speech and language therapists or educational psychologists can assess children’s working memory using formal or informal assessments involving specific recall/repetition tasks e.g. digit span (backwards and forwards repetition), picture span, letter/number sequencing etc. It is important to share with the child that they will have to work harder than most children to attend and concentrate in classroom tasks.

In our practice as speech and language therapists we always find that using visuals in  learning helps children retain and process information better. Being a mum with the knowledge of a speech and language therapist I know that hands on practical input and visuals helps my kids learn better. Recently I have used the hot kettle in my kitchen, a metal plate with ice and hand drawn diagrams to demonstrate the evaporation-condensation-precipitation to my 9-year-old daughter who was struggling to understand the water-cycle taught in school. She then went on to make her own illustration of the water-cycle and could not wait to show it to her teacher.

The following are some of the strategies teachers and parents can use to help children with working memory difficulties:

·         Eliminate distractions as much as possible during tasks (e.g. remove background noise, e.g. music, TV)

·         Gain the attention of the child by establishing eye contact with them.

·         Prepare the child for the task beforehand (e.g. provide an outline of what is going to be taught in the lesson). This will help information to go from short-term memory to long-term memory.

·         Provide clear and simple instructions.

·         Break down tasks and instructions into small chunks (not more than two-part instructions at a time).

·         Give the child the opportunity to rehearse or record the instruction (e.g. writing down the instruction).

·         Ask them to repeat the instruction to check if they understood.

·         Encourage the child to ask for repetition if they have not understood.

·         Encourage your child to keep notes, make outlines and use other brief reminders.

·         Encourage good organizational skills by using folders and dividers to keep work easily accessible and in order.

·         In school, providing notes and handouts will be useful when a child struggles to copy due to visual memory difficulties.

·         Visuals will help them understand and retain information better (e.g. visual timetable, flowcharts, diagrams, pictures, illustrations, videos).

A sensory approach to learning involving practical input and visuals will consolidate retention and learning (e.g. visual timetable, flowcharts, diagrams, pictures, illustrations, videos, demonstrations, hands on practical tasks).