What is Memory in Childhood?
Memory in childhood is the ability to recall important information for academics and day-to-day life.
Memory can be defined as, “the mental ability to store and retrieve words, facts, procedures, skills, concepts, and experiences” [Lewis, 2002].
Everyone forgets things occasionally. For young children, it is important that parents keep an eye on memory issues as they arise. Some kids may have difficulties remembering a series of instructions. Other kids may have trouble remembering where they left important materials. When these challenges are interfering with day-to-day life, it may be time to intervene.
Memory challenges will most likely be evident in school because remembering information is so important for learning and school success. Issues may also be apparent in social interactions and daily chore routines. Your child may have school struggles with memory or forget the morning routine daily, despite constant reminders.
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Types of Memory Problems in Childhood
Psychologists can break down child memory problems more specifically in some cases. In the articles that follow, we will review these types of memory issues in more detail.
- Long-term memory (general memory): memory for factual knowledge, experiences, and events
- Memory and learning styles: memory that depends significantly on the learning modality. For example, the child can only remember verbal information but struggles with memory for visual concepts like geography or math
- Memory for learning: memory for information learned in school, such as spelling words, vocabulary, times tables, and equations
- Memory for names: memory for familiar people’s names
- Memory for faces: memory for familiar people’s faces
- Memory for places: memory for familiar places
- Procedural memory: memory for procedures like how to drive a car, how to load the dishwasher, and how to play basketball or the guitar
- Working memory: memory for recent information. Working memory requires a person to hold onto information for a few seconds. Examples include finding a phone number on the internet and then typing it into the phone or remembering a short set of directions to navigate the school building
- Visual encoding: memory for spelling and reading. Visual memory is required for reading, specifically, for identifying letter combinations, blends, and sight words
Symptoms of Memory Problems in Childhood
Forgetful: your child may seem to forget everything. You might catch yourself saying, “you would lose your head too if it weren’t attached!”
Losing items: your child may leave homework assignments, projects, clothing, and lunch boxes at school despite frequent reminders to bring things home. The ‘lost and found’ seems to have their name on it.
Missing assignments: your child may have constant missing assignments and late work. The child’s teacher may keep saying, “He could do so much better if he would just get work turned in on time!”
Unprepared for events: your child may show up at school on the day of a big field trip without their sack lunch or permission slip.
Messy spaces: your child’s backpack may look like a science project. You may find a crumpled-up picture day order form, past due homework assignments, and lunch money in the bottom of your child’s locker.
Reminders aren’t helping: your child may have already received a lot of support for remembering things. You might have tried sticky notes, planners, digital devices, reminders, and email alerts. Despite lots of help, some children continue to miss assignments and remain unorganized.
Getting in trouble: your child may be getting in trouble with the teacher for forgetting to complete assignments, showing up without important materials, or failing to follow through on instructions.
Always running late: your child may struggle with the morning routine. He may fail to brush his teeth, throw on wrinkled jeans, skip breakfast, and get out the door 10 minutes late. She may be the one at soccer practice dressed out for an away game when the game is to be at home.
Family frustrations or arguments: your child’s memory problems may be the source of frustration for the family. You may have endless arguments over your child’s ‘taking responsibility,’ ‘getting organized,’ and ‘remembering things.’
Memory issues in childhood by age
Children with poor memory may have challenges in school and at home. There can be issues with remembering spelling words or math facts at school. At home, they may have trouble completing chores, managing belongings, and putting things away. It is important for parents to have compassion and make accommodations to help their children navigate these challenges.
Does your 5-year-old have memory problems? Children with memory issues at 5 years of age may have some difficulties with reading or math. There may be some challenges identifying letter sounds or sight words due to memory problems. If this is the case for your child, consider multi-sensory interventions like Orton Gillingham or Lindamood-Bell. These methods can help the brain ‘anchor’ information through sensory memory.
Does your 6-year-old have memory problems? Children with memory problems at age 6 may struggle in academics or organizing materials. Your child may have trouble remembering their lunchbox or backpack in the morning for school. You may tell your child five times to go get their shoes and see them come back empty-handed. In this case, it is really important for parents to deliver instructions step-by-step. Acknowledge each step with praise as it is completed.
Does your 7-year-old have memory problems? Children with memory problems at age 7 or age 8, may be unorganized. They may complete assignments in class and forget to turn them into the teacher. They may lose important items. You may feel like you are constantly reminding your child of the materials needed for school or soccer practice. If this is the case, it can help to keep ‘stations’ in your house. Have a specific space for their backpack, shoes, lunchbox, and water bottle.
Causes of Memory Problems in Childhood
Children with poor memory skills may have issues with one or more of the following skills:
- General executive functioning issues: Parents need to remember that your child’s executive functioning skills will not be fully developed until early adulthood (about 23 years old). It is important to be patient and not expect perfection in your child’s developing executive functioning abilities.
- Organization: this is a part of executive functioning in the brain. Organization refers to the ability to keep track of a number of different things and to remain organized throughout a task. Children who are very unorganized may also be forgetful in terms of remembering supplies and remembering the steps to finish an activity.
- Planning: is also a part of executive functioning. 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 them all into my backpack.” Children with more challenges in executive functioning will have a harder time remembering the steps to plan out a task in this way.
- Working memory: is a form of memory that is significantly impacted by executive functioning abilities. Working memory refers to holding things in memory for a short time, perhaps 20 to 30 seconds, and acting on that information. For example, you are holding a list of things to do in your head long enough to gather up the materials and get started. Kids with these challenges may specifically struggle with this type of memory because it requires ‘executive control processes,’ which is the thinking part of the brain that has to pay attention, organize, and hold information in memory to get tasks done.
- Sustained attention: is the ability to focus long enough to complete a task or activity without becoming distracted. If attention is the issue, your child may not remember information because they were not paying attention in the first place. Children with these issues may be able to pay attention to activities they enjoy. For example, they may easily remember the steps to build a lego set but not how to pack up their backpack for school. In this case, your child’s memory may be okay, but their attention is interfering with the recall of important information.
- Processing speed: is the ability to respond quickly and complete simple tasks. A child with a slow processing speed may have difficulty remembering information that is provided quickly or within a time limit. This challenge will show up more often when an environment is busy with a lot of extra information that the child also has to process, such as in a loud and crowded classroom.
- Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): ‘small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen in childhood. A child’s memory can be affected even with a more common distressing experience, such as family strife, school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama. If your child suddenly becomes forgetful, it will be important to get curious about what could be happening emotionally. With ‘small t traumas,’ the child will often begin to cope better after the situation passes or there has been time to process the emotions with a caring adult.
- Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): ‘big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. It is very common for children to have significant memory issues after experiencing trauma events. Care for children with these traumatic experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care.
- Head injury: children of any age who have experienced head trauma to the extent of having a concussion may experience challenges with their memory. If, as a parent, you notice challenges with things like remembering, problem solving, following instructions, or paying attention following a concussion, it will be important to talk to your doctor and possibly seek to follow up with a neuropsychologist or neurorehabilitation.
What To Do About Memory Problems in Childhood
- School consultation: If your child is in upper elementary, middle school, or high school, remembering assignments is very important. The first thing to do is likely to request a consultation with the school. There may be support available from the school counselor or academic interventionist at your child’s school.
- Help with planner: If your child is struggling, it can be a useful strategy to sit down with teachers and talk about how to support your child using a planner. Some children will do much better when they have a physical planner that parents and teachers can check daily. Although a digital planner is fine, it will be necessary that both the child and parent can easily access and add items to the planner each day.
- A home-school communication notebook: If your child often forgets homework or gets in trouble in class over missing work, you may want to request a ‘home-school communication’ book. This is a simple spiral notebook with a section dedicated to each day. The parent can write a note about how homework went that night. The teacher can describe how the school day looked and give specific instructions for assignments and materials needed for the next day.
- Online homework systems: If assignments and grades are posted online, it will be important that you know how to use the system. Often, it can be confusing to access systems like Infinite Campus and Schoology until someone teaches you the process. At the very beginning of the school year, make sure you have the login information for your child’s school accounts. If your child is struggling with remembering assignments, get in the habit of checking these online systems each night.
- Understand how your child learns: Learning styles can have a significant impact on your child’s memory and success in life. Understanding how a child learns can allow adults to provide the right type of support for your child’s memory. Parents and professionals can then begin to promote certain learning and memory strategies over others and can guide a child toward greater success and improved self-esteem.
- What to do if your child is a visual learner:If your child likes learning things with the eyes, you can help them remember information by providing outlines, graphic organizers, and pictures. A visual learner might say, “Oh, so I see it now” or “I can picture that.”
- Visual memory strategies: include maps, charts, and graphs. Visual depictions of different species of fish will be more interesting to a visual learner than would hearing a verbal description of the fish’s behavior.
- What to do if your child is an auditory learner: If your child likes learning things with the ears, you can help their memory by reading materials out loud. For example, if your child brings home a page of directions, read them aloud and ask them to say the instructions back to you. Children who learn this way often prefer to read you their study materials instead of doing the work in their heads. Kids with this style may say, “I hear you,” or “I’m listening,” or “let me tell you what I can remember.”
- Auditory memory strategies: use verbal repetition, mnemonics, or sing new information as a rhyme or jingle. The 50 states song may help a child learn the states. They may enjoy hearing a speaker on a topic like marine biology instead of viewing a map of marine ecosystems.
- What to do if your child is a kinesthetic learner: If your child likes to learn something by feeling it, they may learn better when physically experiencing the information. For example, a kinesthetic learner might enjoy writing spelling words in the sand. They may remember more if allowed to walk around while listening to a lecture or audiobook. These kids like to try the task, complete the experiment and touch the samples. They may say, “I feel it!” “Let me touch it.” or “Can I hold it?”
- Active or kinesthetic memory strategies: use live experiences to teach new information. Kinesthetic learners want to get their hands wet, swim with the fish, or do an experiment on different types of ocean water to check the salt composition and determine the best habitat. When allowed to learn new materials in this way, their memory for such information will likely be greatly improved.
- What to do for multiple intelligences: Psychologist Howard Gardner  proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. These intelligences are like specific learning styles or aptitudes. In addition to verbal, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles, Gardner proposed many other types, such as musical, interpersonal, and naturalistic.
- Alternative memory strategies:
- A musical child will most likely remember best by singing songs, dancing, or writing music to memorize new material.
- An interpersonal style of learning will remember information best when they are able to talk to a peer about the topic, explore their own emotions about the subject, or hear an engaging and meaningful story about the new information.
- Naturalistic learners will remember information best when they can experience it in nature or in an outdoor classroom setting.
- Gardner’s work suggests that when educators and other professionals support multiple intelligences, children can learn to feel confident in their strengths, rather than forcing them into one learning modality. Often, when educators and parents pay attention to the preferred learning style, a child’s memory for academic material will be greatly enhanced.
- Gradual release approach: If your child is struggling with independence on school tasks, you might often hear, “I don’t have any homework,” “I forgot my homework,” or “I don’t know how to do this homework.” To help your child, 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 and starts remembering important tasks independently.
It is not helpful for adults to say, “They should be able to do this by now.” Clearly, they are not able. Yes, your child is ultimately responsible for remembering things, but this process is a team game for now. Do not get discouraged. Provide support and structure and then gradually pull back as your child gains independence and responsibility.
- Collaborative goal setting: Collaborative goal setting is a powerful strategy for memory and learning [9, 10, 11]. 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 he gets all his grades up to a B or better, you will help him purchase one. These goals may improve your child’s memory for subjects where they are not naturally inclined or particularly interested. Sometimes extrinsic rewards are necessary to help your child remember less intriguing information in school.
- Household organization system: If your child’s memory is impaired due to losing important items, it may be helpful to get very organized around the house. Make things clear, concise, and easy to follow. Create charts and posters with reminders and sequences. Make a specific place to put shoes and backpacks the night before school. Most kids will not be totally organized on their own. Setting up supportive structures like these can be a huge help to your child’s memory and organization.
- Positive reinforcement: Find immediate ways to positively reinforce your child for remembering important items and have a reward system. A behavior therapist can help to create really effective systems to improve your child’s organization. When your child is more organized, it will be easier to remember assignments and important materials for school the next day.
- Organizational coach or therapist: A child who is not naturally organized will be forgetful too without systems in place. Sometimes disorganized children also have disorganized parents, and so it can be very helpful if a therapist can help to shoulder some of the burden of getting your child organized. The more organized your child gets, the better their memory will be for school materials, sports gear, and important dates.
- Consider learning disabilities: When learning struggles occur in a variety of learning settings and in a number of different modalities, a learning disability may be present. Learning disabilities are challenges in processing information for reading, writing, math or a combination of these challenges may greatly impact a student’s ability to make progress in one subject or another. If you think your child’s memory problems are indicative of a learning disability, consult one of the resources listed at the end of this article for an assessment or comprehensive evaluation.
When to Seek Help for Memory Problems in Childhood
As a parent, if you have tried some of the suggestions above in the ‘What to do’ section and you are seeing marked success, good for you! There is no need to seek further help for memory if you are able to implement successful strategies and your child is making meaningful progress.
Children and teens who experience significant memory problems may be showing a symptom of another disability. While certainly not always the case, it is important not to ignore a symptom that could be having a real impact on your child. In the case of memory, other disabilities could be a learning disability, ADHD, or an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The next section discusses therapists and types of assessment that may benefit your child who has memory challenges.
If you have tried to help your child and yet they are still struggling, listen to your gut and seek further support. If you are feeling stuck in this decision, talk to your child’s teacher or school psychologist and get their take on the challenges. A significant memory concern will likely impact your child at home, school, and in the community.
Further Professional Resources for Memory Problems
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 from memory issues and to help with planning and organization
- Executive functioning coach or tutor: to help your child with any academic weaknesses or work completion problems resulting from memory issues. It is a good idea to take this role off of the parent and restore some harmony in the home
- School psychologist: to determine learning issues that are causing memory challenges based on the child’s learning profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan, or RTI is warranted to help your child
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment that would look at your child’s memory within mental health or behavioral contexts
These professionals may recommend or administer the following assessments for memory issues:
Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation
Cognitive assessment: assessment of cognitive processing to help determine what interventions may work best to support your child’s learning and memory
Psychological or school psychological evaluation
Academic assessment: academic assessments in components of reading, writing, math, and oral language can help us understand learning processes and see the impact of any executive functioning, processing speed, or attention deficits on learning and memory
Neuropsychological, psychological, or school psychological evaluation
Executive functioning assessment: executive function assessment may help to determine the skills and resources a child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and attend so that they can learn and remember information
Book Resources for Memory Problems in Childhood
Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.
Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.
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.
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.
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.
Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play.
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance.
Helpful books for kids with memory problems
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.
Bell, Nanci (2007). Visualizing and verbalizing: For language comprehension and thinking.
Grandin, Temple. (2006). Thinking in Pictures, Expanded edition: My life with autism.
Gardner, Howard (2006). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice.
Peacock, Gretchen Gimpel & Collett, Brent (2010). Collaborative home/school interventions: Evidence-based solutions for emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.
Perseverance books for kids with memory problems
Spires, Ashley (2014). The most magnificent thing.
Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn.
McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.