Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Working Memory

Why It's Important and How to Support It

Written by:
Nicole Dixon, Psychology Practicum Graduate Student
April 13, 2022

Many of us have struggled to remember a phone number, multi-step directions or a grocery list from time to time. This now-forgotten information was once held in our working memory. What is working memory and what can we do to support it?

What exactly is Working Memory?

Working memory is one of the executive functions in the brain. Executive functions are essential mental skills used daily to focus, follow directions, and both process and react to emotions. Executive function skills, including working memory, are critical for learning, working, relating, and other key daily life tasks.

Working memory is the ability to hold actively in mind a small amount of information. It involves holding such information as digits, letters, words, or other units, for only a few seconds, while also processing and prioritizing this same information. It goes beyond the passive collection of memorized information of rote memory, such as the year of the Canadian Confederation. Some examples of working memory in use are:

  • Remembering a phone number to place a call,
  • Undertaking mental math calculations to arrive at an answer,
  • Remembering multiple steps in a process to complete the tasks successfully, and
  • Remembering a question long enough to provide an answer.

Performance on working memory tests generally improves through childhood as children experience normal cognitive development. It peaks in young adulthood, then declines in old age. This may be related to the normal development and decline of the prefrontal cortex, sometimes referred to as the “thinking” part of our brains. The prefrontal cortex is attributed primarily to the area of executive function. Damage here can cause deficits in working memory where none previously existed.

Do the terms working memory and short-term memory mean the same thing? Some experts believe that short-term memory is storage. By contrast, working memory involves processing and manipulating information in short-term memory. Others feel that working memory is a “go-between” short-term memory and long-term memory. Yet others believe that they are the same thing.

Why is Working Memory Important?

Working memory allows us to hold information briefly in mind and process it. If we forget something that was in our working memory, it is not retrievable without intervention. Interventions might include referring to instructions or asking for the information to be repeated.

Working memory plays a vital role in learning. For example, solving a math word problem involves three steps. First, it requires storing the important details from the problem we have just read.  Second, we retrieve the basic math facts from our long-term memory (such as the steps required to undertake division or the multiplication table). Third, we do the calculations necessary to solve the math problem. Our working memory is required to hold onto and work through the steps.

Working Memory and Learning Disabilities/ADHD

Many children diagnosed with ADHD or Learning Disabilities experience working memory deficits. Studies link these deficits to difficulty with attention, language and reading and may look like:

  • Difficulty planning, organizing, and carrying out everyday tasks such as getting ready for school. This requires a mental list organized by time and location in the home.
  • Challenges with keeping track of priorities and suppressing distractions may impact study skills,
  • Difficulty starting work, which makes staying on task challenging,
  • Poor attention to detail, and
  • Not following instructions.

These children can hold and process a smaller amount of information for a shorter time than their peers. They may hear and see the instructions. As more information overwhelms their working memory, the information needed to complete the task successfully is lost. This can lead to frustrated teachers, parents, and students. It is no wonder that working memory deficits impact core academic skills such as reading, writing and math. As a result, such deficits can negatively affect academic performance in all subject areas. Working memory is negatively impacted further when a student is overtired, anxious or otherwise stressed.

Can We Boost Our Working Memory?

Working memory is a stable trait, which means that training to improve it has minimal impact. Beyond the natural working memory increases and decreases that come with age, any deliberate or trained changes to it are short-lived and task-specific or entirely unsuccessful.

Since working memory training is not supported by research, parents may want to focus on supporting their child’s working memory by externalizing information. This will reduce the load on children’s working memory itself.

Some practical ways to help children with working memory challenges experience success include:

  • Establish and maintain regular routines around getting ready for school, homework, chores, and bedtime. Routines become automatic when practiced repeatedly.  Automatic routines are more easily encoded in memory and less taxing on working memory.
  • Create visual directions and checklists for reference. These can be written with words or created with images. A checklist for getting ready for school for younger children could include images depicting:
    • getting dressed,
    • eating breakfast,
    • brushing teeth,
    • making lunch, and
    • packing backpack.
  • Keep instructions brief and with limited steps.
  • Document, chunk and plan out key tasks and deliverables such as preparation for upcoming tests, multi-step assignments, or extracurricular activities. Regular use of a planner and step-by-step checklists provides at-a-glance reminders of how and when to complete which tasks. Importantly, checklists and planners also provide a visual representation of accomplishments which can be motivating.
  • Foster a habit of setting and honouring automated reminders. Alarms, timers, calendar notifications, etc., can be set for important tasks to reduce the demand on working memory.
  • Provide notes and/or encourage note-taking. Research shows that the old-fashioned paper and pen technique is faster and more accurate than typing notes. Neuroscience also suggests that physical writing on paper is associated with stronger brain activation and better memory recall. However, typed notes also provide a helpful reference.
  • Facilitate and encourage elaborative rehearsal to help transfer information from working memory into long-term memory. Research shows that associating the new information (in working memory) with existing information (in long-term memory), such as a place, name, word or event, can effectively help consolidate it. The existing long-term memory can provide a “hook” for the new information to attach itself onto making it easier to retain.
  • Praise effort, not results. A results-focus can lead to perfectionism or a fear of failure. By contrast, a focus on effort encourages a growth mindset where children learn that persistence, effort and practice can help them overcome challenges.
  • Practice compassion and encourage self-compassion in your child. It is normal and natural for humans to make mistakes. These are learning and practice opportunities for a growth mindset. These may also be opportunities to consider modifications to your child’s working memory support system so that they may experience greater success in the future.