What is Memory for Learning in Childhood?
Memory for learning in childhood is the skill of retaining information learned in school. When this type of memory is impaired, a child may have academic challenges or learning disabilities.
You may notice that your child is forgetting spelling words, vocabulary, or math facts. It is possible that your child may easily recall non-academic topics but struggle with information learned in school. For example, your child may remember dance moves or soccer plays without a problem but bomb the math test.
“Facts and figures may be learned and then quickly forgotten, slipping away like grains of sand.”
Symptoms of Memory for Learning in Children
- Forgetting spelling words: your child is consistently struggling with the weekly spelling test, even after studying
- Forgetting multiplication facts: your child is often forgetting math facts, even after regular practice. Perhaps, you have used flashcards, counted out M&Ms, drawn figures in the sand, and made up songs, but the math facts just aren’t sticking
- Forgetting information on the test: your child scores lower than you expect on tests. This can be particularly frustrating when you see your child knows the information well the night before
- Forgetting despite hard work: your child is trying and has great behavior, but continues to fall behind academically
- Learning slowly: your child shines in non-academic areas but struggles with memorizing and demonstrating learning in the classroom
- Performing differently on projects: your child can demonstrate their learning through hands-on projects but fails tests
If memory for learning is a concern, you will notice that although your child makes serious efforts to learn facts in their classes, they continue to forget that information by the time they are tested. They may be great at other learning tasks like understanding the big picture, problem-solving, and following directions but may not remember facts and information.
Causes of Struggles for Memory for Learning in Childhood
The underlying problem for challenges with memory for learning could be related to processing speed, learning styles, learning disabilities, or attention challenges.
Processing speed refers to how quickly an individual processes information. If someone processes slowly, it takes longer to learn new information. It also takes longer to connect that new information to information they already understand. Perhaps your child is just unable to learn and retain information at the rate at which it is presented in school.
Sometimes, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have a slower processing speed because they are dealing with other distractions that may slow processing.
Learning styles refer to the best way for a particular child to understand and remember information. There are several different learning styles, but here’s a quick guide to some of the most common forms: auditory, kinesthetic, and visual.
- Auditory: Some children learn by hearing information. You might hear the child say, “I hear you,” when they understand something. These children are auditory learners.
- Kinesthetic: Others learn by watching and trying it themselves. They learn best when moving and doing. You might hear an older child say, “that’s hard for me to get my hands around, or “let me try to grasp that.” We call these learners active or kinesthetic learners.
- Visual: Some children learn from pictures and solve visual puzzles with ease. They learn just fine if they see the problem on paper. They might be heard describing their ‘aha moments’ like, ‘Oh, now I see!’ or “I can picture that.” Kids who learn like this are called visual learners.
Memory for meaningful information
Challenges with memory could have to do with the teaching style or modality and the child’s ability to make meaning of the information. A child who is better at reading comprehension may be successfully hearing a story, understanding the information, and relating it to prior learning.
This strategy is harder to use with spelling words. For a child who really needs to assign meaning to any new learning, some spelling rules can help. For example, the parent could draw a bed with the ‘b’ as the head of the bed and the ‘d’ as the foot of the bed. In this way, the child is able to assign meaning and a visual representation when learning spelling and the correct use of letters to make words. See example of how to teach ‘b’ and ‘d’ using visuals, songs, and kinesthetic movements: HERE.
Learning spelling may take more time and teaching because the information is rote, factual, and not easily relatable to background knowledge. When we think about learning challenges, we find that some learners have a deficit in a particular mode of learning. Before deciding your child has a disability, try different learning strategies and see what learning style works best.
Learning disabilities or learning disorders, are innate brain differences that make it more challenging to understand and remember information in a particular subject. Learning disabilities are evident when a child has challenges with certain learning areas (math, for example) with co-occurring strengths in other areas (language, for example).
Often, very bright children have learning disabilities. A child with a learning disability may excel in language and have an excellent vocabulary but spell or write very poorly. They may read well but struggle with geography.
Processing deficits often underlie learning disabilities. Some children process information provided in an auditory format (spoken information) but struggle to make heads or tails of a chart or graph in the science textbook.
Challenges with these memory processes may be related to a learning disability like dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia.
The hippocampus is the part of our brain devoted to learning and memory. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) handles attention by taking in information initially and then planning and organizing that information. Children need to get that information in through the PFC and then need to store it with the help of the hippocampus.
The hippocampus tends to ‘encode’ or recall information more readily when the memory carries an emotional valence. For example, if you were to have a car accident on a certain street corner, you are more likely to remember exactly what that street corner looks like and the place and time of the accident.
An easy way to ‘remember’ that the hippocampus is where the brain recalls information is to think about a trip to the zoo to see the hippos. If the trip to the zoo was particularly meaningful or emotional, your child will be likely to remember it. For example, imagine the child was licking an ice cream cone and watching the hippos. Then, another child bumps into them, knocking the ice cream on the ground. As your child watches the hippos, it is more likely that the experience will be remembered.
‘Attention skills’ refer to our brain’s natural ability to focus on the task at hand.
“Attention problems can significantly impact a child’s memory.”
Sometimes, It can seem almost impossible to tease out an attention problem from a learning or memory problem. If the child has an attention issue, it is possible that the information was never learned in the first place. Then, when the child goes to recall it on the test, it appears that there is a memory issue or a learning problem. In that case, attention was the culprit.
Learning math facts can be boring for some children. If these children struggle to focus, it will be even harder to learn this information. Children with attention challenges do best when they are engaged in learning and relating information to something they like and already understand.
In this case, the child may find that listening to the information in an auditory format leads to daydreaming and distraction. Often, children with attention challenges have ADHD. They may respond well to a mix of learning approaches that incorporate active learning. The child may enjoy doing a science experiment, using math to build something, or acting out a skit derived from spelling words.
Short-term to long-term storage
A child may be struggling with long-term memory and storage if they can cram information and retain it very briefly, perhaps even long enough for that weekly spelling test, but then fail to retain the information later.
Short-term memory is where we store information as we learn it. Then, by practicing and rehearsing in the short term, we are working to move information to long-term memory. In order to remember facts over the long-term, we must practice them often, and make meaning of the information.
How to Help Children with Memory for Learning Challenges in Childhood
Use study strategies
Cramming may not work for many children. Taking the information in too fast with too little practice may lead to immediate availability but not to the proper storage of the information in the long term. Studying over a more extended period, such as a bit each day, can help some children and adults retain more information. In psychology, we call this difference “distributed practice” versus “mass practice.”
The research is clear. Distributed practice (a little at a time, over time) is far superior to mass practice (cramming all at once). The ultimate goal is to get the important information into long-term memory so that it becomes part of the knowledge base. When we store information in long-term memory, we can build on it with new knowledge and learning.
Therefore, repetition and distributed practice are critical to helping your child remember information for school. Find a quiet place and set aside a bit of time each day.
Use multi-sensory learning strategies
Make songs, write multiplication facts in the sand, and draw the states in chalk on the driveway. Use multiplication for baking a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe by selecting a times table to work on and then adding in the chocolate chips in multiples of that times table.
All of these activities can take something abstract or unapproachable and anchor it in the mind.
Make learning meaningful
Help your child relate new information to what they already know. This process can be challenging, particularly with rote information like spelling facts or multiplication tables. Using a whiteboard, write the words in giant letters to increase gross motor activity. Make funny songs or stories with spelling words, and act out the script you create over and over with your child taking the lead in a play.
When studying state government, visit your state capitol or watch a movie with characters that capture your child’s attention.
Go to the zoo to learn more about animals from Africa, or check out a large and engaging picture book of animals at the library.
It may take a lot of creativity to develop new learning strategies, and some books and articles are referenced below in the resources section to help you with memory strategies.
Keep an eye out for emotional symptoms
Having a learning challenge like this can be frustrating for a child. It will be important to watch for mental health symptoms of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem that may be related to learning frustrations.
When to Get Help for Memory For Learning Challenges in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom and interventions are not working, talk with your child’s classroom teacher about the RTI process. RTI is Response to Intervention. Ask your child’s teacher how your child is moving through the RTI process and if you need to get help for memory outside of school. If RTI interventions are not working, speak with the special education department at your child’s school about the next steps.
Professional Resources for Memory For Learning Challenges 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.
- Executive functioning coach or tutoring: to help the child work on academic weaknesses and work completion, planning, and organizational skills; nice to take this role off the parent
- School psychologist: to determine learning needs based on the child’s neuropsychological profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan, or RTI is warranted to help your child
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to consider possible symptoms and provide a learning profile for your child
- Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for inattention and impulsivity; stimulant medication for ADHD is effective in a high percentage of children with focus and impulsivity challenges
Similar Conditions to Challenges with Memory For Learning in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this article, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Shifting or sustaining attention: difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges remembering the task at hand
- Perseverating: difficulty with changing tasks due to excessive interest or focus on a specific topic. This challenge is common in ASD and can impact a child’s tendency to become distracted
- Executive functioning: difficulty related to planning, sequencing, organizing information, and carrying out a task in a timely manner
- Depression or general anxiety: difficulty with being forgetful or distracted could be related to underlying feelings of anxiety or depression. Particularly if memory problems are sudden and a change from typical functioning, emotional symptoms should be considered
- Processing speed: difficulty with fluency in cognitive processing. A child may not hear or encode information if they are processing very slowly. It may be important to provide verbal and visual reminders and repeat directions, as otherwise, they may seem to forget.
- Environmental factors: difficulty within the environment could be affecting your child’s memory, such as a lack of sleep, lack of adequate nutrition, traumatic event, or a loud and distracting home-life
Resources For Challenges with Memory for Learning
Higbee, Kenneth. (2008) Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it.
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play.
The Learning Journey (Retrieved 2017). Match It! Memory, Spelling.
Michaelian, Kourken (2013). The Information Effect: Constructive Memory, Testimony, and Epistemic Luck. Synthese 190 (12):2429-2456.
Sousa, David A. (2016) How the Brain Learns