What is Long-Term Memory in Childhood?
Long-term memory in childhood is the ability to hold information in one’s mind for retrieval at a later date. An official definition is, “the mental ability to store and retrieve words, facts, procedures, skills, concepts, and experiences” .
It is common for children to have very good long-term memory accompanied by challenges in short-term memory. When a child is good at remembering information over long periods of time, this becomes an asset academically. For example, a child with a strength in long-term memory may perform better on tests.
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Symptoms of Long-Term Memory Problems in Children
- Always saying, “Oh, I forgot!”: your child can’t remember and follow through on what you have asked of them
- Forgets permission slips, lunch money, keys: your child is unable to remember they need to give something to a teacher, bring something home to you, or turn in something at school
- Missing assignments and late work: your child can not keep track of their school assignments and often forgets to turn them in on time
- Not able to remember where they placed items: your child is always saying “I can’t find my jacket, where is my science project, I left it right here.”
- Not able to follow directions: your child is unable to follow directions because they are unable to remember the directions
- Misses deadlines and due dates: your child is not able to keep track of when things are due
Causes of Long-Term Memory Problems in Childhood
Slow processing speed: Processing speed refers to mental quickness. It is the ability to respond to information quickly, smoothly, and within a time limit. A child with a slow processing speed may have difficulties with some types of memory, particularly in a busy environment with a lot of extra information to process, such as in a crowded classroom.
Inability to Pay Attention: Paying attention refers to focusing and sustaining one’s attention long enough to complete a task or activity. A child with attention issues may have trouble with memory due to lack of focus on the information coming in through a particular setting or situation.
Distractibility: When kids are distractible, they are having difficulty sustaining their attention on the task at hand. A child with sustained attention challenges may struggle with memory due to floating off-track and missing the importance of the activities going on in the environment.
Effects of General Memory Problems in Childhood
Children with poor memory skills may have issues with one or more skills: organization, planning, processing speed, or attention.
Organization: is a part of executive functioning that can be impacted by memory problems.
Organization refers to keeping track of several different things while not forgetting to complete a task. Unfortunately, children with long-term memory problems often also struggle to stay organized.
Planning: is another part of executive functioning that is impacted by memory. Planning refers to the ability to plan out a series and sequence of moves one step at a time.
For example, a child might think, “I need to get my math homework, my math book, my planner, and then make sure to write down my assignments. I need to put those all into my backpack.” However, a child with long-term memory problems may have some difficulties making and carrying out plans to complete tasks or assignments.
Academics: Challenges in short-term memory can cause some academic difficulties. In the classroom, children with short-term memory problems will have challenges following directions, recalling procedures, and completing tasks involving multiple steps.
Both long-term and short-term memory is important for learning. Long-term memory is required for recall and ‘encoding’ information to use it later. Short-term memory is required for daily tasks and procedures.
What to Do About General Memory in Childhood
Request a consultation with your child’s school: If your child is having trouble with general memory it may help to ask for a consultation with your child’s school to help your child with executive functioning skills. For example, putting into place strategies to help your child remember assignments, such as a planner, or understanding where assignments are posted online, and it may help to have a home-school communication notebook.
Sometimes, teachers will tell the parents, “I already told your child what he has to do.” These instructions, although true, do not help very much if your child is unable to remember what the teacher said.
To address the concern about your child taking ownership, you might follow a gradual release approach. First, “I do,” then, “we do,” and finally, “you do.” Let the teachers know that you will pull your support gradually as your child gains skills.
Provide support and structure: If your child is forgetful, it is not helpful for adults to say, “They should be able to do this by now.” Clearly, your child is not. Yes, your child is ultimately responsible, but for now, this process is a ‘team game.’
Eventually, many kids will get the hang of it with your consistent support. Do not get discouraged. Give your child tools such as a calendar, a checklist, and specific starting and stopping times each day. Sometimes, these simple techniques can suddenly make a beast of a task appear achievable.
Collaborative goal setting: If your child is able to set some goals but is unsure how to complete tasks or decide on the best approach, try the collaborative goal-setting method. Sit down with your child and really drill down on what they want to accomplish. Set specific deadlines and objectives with a reward at the end.
If your child wants a new scooter, for example, maybe he can set goals with you for earning it. Perhaps, if your child gets all his grades up to a B or better, you will help your child purchase one.
What is essential here is to set goals that your child knows are challenging but within reach. In addition, you want the goals to be exciting but highly achievable in order to increase motivation for accomplishing them.
Create a household organization system: If your child is unorganized, you may need to set up a plan first. Make things clear, concise, and easy to follow. For example, “When we get home, we hang our backpack up here, get out our lunchbox and put that here, and grab our homework folder and place that over here.” Make a specific place to put shoes, socks, and completed homework assignments. You may find the following day goes more smoothly when your child knows right where to find essential items for school.
Find immediate ways to positively reinforce your child for following the system, and have a plan in place for forgotten assignments. A behavior therapist or executive function coach can help to create effective systems to improve your child’s organization.
Sometimes disorganized children also have disorganized parents, so it can be very helpful if a therapist can help to shoulder some of the burdens of getting your child organized.
When to Seek Help for Long-term Memory in Childhood
If you notice issues with your child’s memory, the first thing to do is work on some of the strategies referenced above. In addition, creating organized structures and systems can be a great way to boost your child’s executive functioning and accommodate any memory challenges.
Many kids will have memory problems, particularly when it comes to topics they do not find particularly interesting. For example, they may be able to tell you every line from their favorite movie but have not the foggiest idea where they left their backpack.
Those challenges are not unusual, and often a patient and supportive approach will remediate these issues over time.
The time to be concerned about memory is when your child is in distress or getting in trouble at school. Any time a child’s grades start dropping is an important time for parents to tune in to what’s happening. Often, with a teenager, parents make the mistake of getting all upset over the grades and piling on additional consequences or punishments.
If your child is truly struggling with something, these ‘consequence-based’ approaches won’t work. Instead, parents will want to understand what is getting in the way of their child’s progress. For example, did something change? Did the family just move to a new city? Did their BFF just abandon them? Is your child not getting along with a certain teacher or peer? Any of these issues could be impacting your child’s memory.
Professional Resources for Long-term Memory in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and to help with planning and organization
- Executive functioning coach or tutor: to help your child with any academic weaknesses or work completion problems, planning and organization
- School psychologist: to determine learning needs based on the child’s psychoeducational profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan or intervention plan is warranted to help your child
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment that would consider possible symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context
- Psychiatrist: to manage psychotropic medication or supplements for inattention, impulsivity. Some psychiatrists also provide psychotherapy
Similar Conditions to Long-term Memory in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Shifting or sustaining attention: difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges following directions or remembering tasks and procedures
- Perseverating: difficulty changing tasks due to excessive interest or focus on a certain topic
- Executive functions: difficulty related to planning, sequencing, organizing information and carrying out a task in a timely manner
- Depression or emotion regulation: difficulty managing feelings can lead to being forgetful or distracted due to underlying feelings of sadness, depression, or extremes of emotion
- Processing speed: difficulty with fluency in cognitive processing. Children may not hear or encode information if they are processing very slowly. It may be important to provide verbal and visual reminders and to repeat directions
References for Long-Term Memory in Childhood
 Lewis, PhD, Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). Brainstars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.
Resources for Long-Term Memory in Childhood
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.
Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.
Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, second edition.
Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.
Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play.
Higbee, Kenneth. (2008) Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it (A book about Mneumonics)
Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance.
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie (2008). Late, lost and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.
Books for kids about long-term memory
Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn.
Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)
Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it.
McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.