The parent forum on Working Memory (WM) by Dr Nicole Carvill was most interesting. Nicole explained that WM is a function of the brain that helps us to briefly store and manage the information required to carry out complex tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension.
Nicole discussed the development of WM and the impact of poor WM on learning and life skills. She highlighted how some gifted children may be affected if they have WM in the “normal” range that doesn’t align to other gifted skill sets. She also noted how a good WM is predictive of academic success, rather than simply looking at IQ scores.
In daily life, we use working memory for a number of tasks such as remembering instructions, solving problems, controlling impulses and focusing attention. But when we are distracted, we lose our train of thought and our WM can fail us.
Our memory works by:
- Encoding information through the senses. Attention is critical in this phase: we take key information in and block other details out. So if we aren’t fully concentrating in the present, the information either has to be relayed again or we miss out. This can be catastrophic if it regularly affects a child while they are at school.
- Storing information into short term memory (passively storing the information temporarily storage), or considering and manipulating the information using WM before perhaps storing it in long term memory. The size of your WM dictates how much information you can hold and process at any one time (note: your capacity increases around age 6-7 and up to 11).
- Retrieving information for later use. The more meaningful the information is, the more likely you are to retain it.
There are two types of VM: verbal and visual. Visual WM is correlated with mathematical development and verbal with literacy, so difficulties in either area can be used to gauge WM problems.
So how do we recognise this in our children? In primary school, they may be socially well adjusted and chat too much. They may not wait their turn in conversation (“need to say it now before I forget”). If they have problems following lengthy verbal instructions, they can miss key parts and end up asking peers for clarification rather than their teachers. This eventually stops if they lose confidence and become embarrassed. They may also behave as though they don’t pay attention (short attention span as WM is full).
By the time a child is in secondary school, they may have low confidence, be less likely to participate and show poor performance with comprehension and mental arithmetic. These factors make it difficult to learn life skills such as planning, listening while taking notes, decoding unfamiliar words, following multistep instructions and completing exams, etc.
Interestingly, kids with poor WM get anxious which creates a cycle where WM capacity reduces (~30%) as anxiety goes up. If a child experiences difficulties with their WM they often do not tend to catch up which results in poor academic progress. It doesn’t mean that they can’t do the work. They’ve just lost the learning opportunity to build the skills which can have a cumulative impact over time. Often these kids are quite bright and are frustrated because they can’t do what others do. They don’t see themselves as smart, so they disengage.
Regardless of where these kids sit in terms of IQ, they are at risk. A teacher is unlikely to help a child behaving this way to reach their full potential. But the same teacher can take a different approach if an assessment is made and WM issues identified. For example, they might change the learning environment (minimal distractions/no multitasking) or present information differently. Kids can also be guided to take exercises that will change the brain and enhance cognitive performance (e.g. cogmed.com).
Research shows that if you train your brain to work at the highest possible level, you can extend your WM which can lead to better academic success.