Tania's note: You may remember Alison's first post on dyslexia here. We're very pleased she's agreed to write more for us.
Have you ever climbed a mountain with a group of hikers who are fitter than you? While they are talking, joking and walking at pace, you only have the lung capacity to breathlessly propel your legs forward. By the time you reach the summit, they have taken in the view, swigged their drinks and are ready to move on.
This is how it feels for learners with a poor working memory capacity. They need more time to learn new concepts, it takes more brainpower to do so and they often struggle academically to keep pace with their peers (Alloway et al., 2010; Chalmers et al., 2018).
Many of these learners were already behind before the pandemic and, at a time where talk of ‘catching up’ dominates the media, it is important that the needs of these students are not forgotten. These learners will not be able to cram six months of missed learning, so schools will need to review and prioritise the curriculum objectives to make sure they are achievable.
As a teacher, who also has a son with poor working memory, I am passionate that these children’s learning needs are met.
What is working memory?
Working memory is our brain’s temporary storage system where we hold information briefly to carry out daily tasks. We use our working memory when we follow instructions, complete mental calculations, or hold a phone number in our head while searching for a pen. It is like a mental whiteboard where we momentarily store information so we can complete a task.
Although our working memory capacity grows through childhood it is limited, and some people’s temporary storage system is a lot smaller than others. Professor Gathercole and Dr Alloway’s research suggests that in a standard class of 30 children aged 7-8, three of the children will have the working memory capacities of an average 4-year-old while another three will have the working memory capacities of the average 11-year-old child.
How will I know if my child has working memory problems?
It's common for children diagnosed with specific learning and language difficulties (SPLD), such as dyslexia and developmental language disorder (DLD), to have poor working memory problems. However, there are many other children who are not categorised as having special educational needs that may also struggle (Gray et al., 2019).
Children with poor working memory capacity often have poor attention spans. They may be mislabelled as lazy, poor listeners, or dreamers. I remember my son’s frustration at being told off by his teacher for “not listening” to the instructions given at the beginning of the lesson, when in reality, by the time he had laboriously copied the date from the board, he had forgotten what to do next. Home learning during COVID lockdowns will have caused extra challenges for these pupils; it is harder for teachers working remotely to pick up on the pupil's body language that highlights inattention.
When a child’s working memory has been overloaded, they often “zone out” and this is when they miss crucial information, and their progress becomes patchy. If this description is ringing bells with your child, it is worth considering their age. It is normal for pre-school and reception children to have poor concentration spans so this may not be a working memory problem, but just part of their normal development. Hertfordshire’s Specialist Teacher Outreach Service has produced a checklist of how working memory difficulties may present in the classroom:
What can we do to help?
Although there is some evidence that working memory training can increase working memory capacity, this is not a “magic pill” (Bergman Nutley et al.,2017p10) that will overcome all difficulties.
From my experience as a teacher, children with a poor working memory capacity can achieve academically provided that learning is delivered in a way that supports them.
Below are some ways to help.
This technique introduces new learning either one-to-one or in a small group before it is covered as a class. The curriculum is full of terminology and concepts that will overload these learners if they are delivered at speed. These learners will have a better chance of understanding new concepts if they are introduced at a slow pace, in a quiet environment free from distractions.
- Focus on one new skill or concept at a time:
For example, there are a lot of sequential steps in maths calculations. If you are introducing long division in a lesson, just focus on this skill and don’t try to apply this to a real-life problem-solving scenario at the same time.
Show students how to complete new skills slowly, step by step. Give learners visual aids and worked examples. They can rely on these rather than their working memory. Simple checklists and post-it notes can remind a child of key things they need to remember.
- Use technology and memory aids to help support the learner:
Number lines, Numicon and Dienes Blocks can help learners visualise numbers. Dictaphones can record longer instructions. If there is agreement with the teacher, secondary students can take photos of the whiteboard, so they have a record of their learning.
- Practice, practice, practice!
Give these learners time to practice and overlearn so that new knowledge and skills are committed to memory. If concepts are rushed through too quickly, the learning will not be retained.
Teach your child about working memory and encourage them to ask for help when they forget and don’t understand. Some children do not like to repeatedly ask for help, so it is great when teachers can check in with them at different parts of the lesson.
Give these children space to think and engage with their learning. Regularly stop and check for understanding. When asking a question, give learners time to answer. At my son’s school, students are given 20 seconds to think before the teacher requests an answer. This means those with poor working memories have a chance to respond.
Teach older students how to make notes, however messy, as a way of increasing focus, recording and reviewing their learning. This skill takes time but will help put the learner in the driving seat.
- Plan in success:
These children will have to work harder than their peers and research shows that they are more vulnerable to lower self-esteem. Although James Nottingham’s “Learning Pit” is a popular analogy used in schools, it is important that those with poor working memory capacities are not left in the pit! It is great to use Dweck’s Growth Mindset language, but in my experience, children want to keep trying once they can see their own achievements.
- Take breaks!
Regular physical breaks between learning can keep focus and help working memory.
The future is looking more positive for working memory because many schools are now talking about “cognitive load theory” which incorporates working memory. This means that more teachers are now evaluating the memory demands of their lessons. If you would like to find out more about working memory, Professor Gathercole and Dr Packiam Alloway have produced a great guide here
- Bergman Nutley, S., & Söderqvist, S. (2017). How is working memory training likely to influence academic performance? Current evidence and methodological considerations. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 69.
- Chalmers, K. A., & Freeman, E. E. (2018). A comparison of single and multi-test working memory assessments in predicting academic achievement in children. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 152(8), 613–629. https://doi-org.ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/10.1080/00223980.2018.1491469
- Gray, S., Fox, A. B., Green, S., Alt, M., Hogan, T. P., Petscher, Y., & Cowan, N. (2019). Working memory profiles of children with dyslexia, developmental language disorder, or both. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 62(6), 1839-1858.
- Alloway TP, Alloway RG. 2010 Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 106, 20–29. (doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2009.11.003) 40.
- Gathercole SE, Pickering SJ, Knight C, Stegmann Z. (2004) Working memory skills and educational attainment: evidence from national curriculum assessments at 7 and 14 years of age.
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