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Remembering — Working Memory

Working Memory in Childhood

Young girl with her palm to her forehead.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 16 Jan 2022

What is Working Memory in Childhood?

Working memory in childhood is the ability to remember information long enough to use it. 

Working memory is one index of cognitive ability or our thinking and reasoning skills within educational psychology and child development. In our brain, it originates in the prefrontal cortex. Working memory can exist for both visual information and auditory information.

When children hear information and manipulate it in their heads to use it right away, they use working memory.

A classic working memory task is the ‘old school’ challenge of recalling a phone number. Remember looking up a phone number in the phone book, holding the seven digits in our heads in serial order, and then calling them on the rotary phone? This task is a classic example of working memory. This same type of task is called “digit span” in cognitive development assessments.

Children don’t need to do this task today, but they might have to remember math problems in their heads while they solve them, often called mental math. They may need to remember their schedule and figure out what time reading will be held. Everyone has a limited capacity for working memory. 

The time between hearing the information and either writing it down or actually carrying out the task relies on working memory.

Holding information in one’s head while manipulating the information is a simple way to think of working memory.

Working memory is “the shortest duration of information storage.” It refers to the ability to hold things in memory for a short amount of time, perhaps 20 to 30 seconds, and act on that information [1].

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Symptoms of Challenges with Working Memory in Children

  • Forgetting the next step: you notice your child not remembering the next event in a series, such as when building a model airplane. 
  • Not seeming to listen to directions: you notice your child cannot follow directions because they can’t remember what someone said.
  • Not able to do math in their head: your child may say, “I can’t do math in my head; I have to write it down to solve it
  • Asking you to repeat yourself a lot: your child can not remember what you said.
  • Needs to use notes, reminders, calendars, and Post-its: your child needs these items to remember things. It is excellent if you and your child have implemented these. Your child may find visual reminders and checklists very helpful or necessary.
  • Performing well on written work but having difficulty solving multi-step problems: you may notice this with your child when conducting science experiments at school.
  • Struggles with multi-step problems: your child might struggle with solving problems if the steps aren’t written down. It may be that your child cannot hold several different facts in his head while simultaneously working through steps to solve a problem.
  • Trouble with Reading Comprehension: to comprehend what they read, your child needs to pay attention and store information as they put it into context and understand a textbook or story. This process may be challenging if working memory is impaired, but note-taking can help.

Causes of Working Memory Challenges in Childhood 

Working memory deficits are common in children, particularly those with slow processing speed or attention deficits. Keep in mind that needing to write things down does not necessarily mean a child has a clinically significant deficit.

When your child cannot remember information long enough to use, the underlying problem will likely involve one of the following aspects: organization, planning, executive functioning challenges, processing speed, or attention. Often, individuals with significant problems in one or more of these areas may meet the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) criteria. Attention and memory are closely related in this context.

Organization is a part of executive functioning [2, 3, 4]. Organization refers to the ability to keep track of several different things and remain organized, not forgetting to complete a task.

Planning is also a part of executive functioning [2, 3, 4]. Planning refers to the ability to plan out a series and sequence of moves one step at a time. For example, “I need to get my math homework, my math book, and my planner. Then, I need to make sure to write down my assignments. I need to put those all into my backpack.”

Processing speed is related to the speed at which an individual can take in and process information. A child with a slow processing speed may have difficulty when information is provided quickly or when an environment is busy with extra information that the child also has to process, such as the hum and activity of a crowded classroom.

Attention means the ability to focus long enough to complete a task or activity without becoming distracted by other things going on around you. Sustained Attention includes focusing on something even if the task is very dull and is without an immediate reward. Paying attention will come more easily if the activity is enjoyable to your child, such as playing Minecraft or reading a book about trains. If your child is reading a math textbook, the task may quickly become boring unless they adore math. Without the ability to sustain attention, your child’s mind will wander [2, 3, 4].

What to Do about Working Memory in Childhood

If your child has challenges with working memory, the following strategies may help.

Use visuals: Try graphic organizers, outlines, and checklists. Remember that your child may be strong in other aspects of cognitive ability like fluid intelligence or nonverbal reasoning. Allow them to use other skills to help manage any working memory challenges.

  1. Write it down. Have your child write things down and work problems on paper instead of trying to solve them in their head. Some children who struggle with working memory may be very good at math when they can see the problem and have the details in front of them.
  1. Use number models and pictures. Having the child write a number model and draw a picture of the problem can help immensely.
  1. Use to-do lists and handwritten planners. Many people struggle to remember. Adults will often say, “I need to write that down in my planner, or I will forget.”

Set up for success:

  1. Make sure your child is studying at a desk, far away from the television, or distracting siblings. 
  2. Try working in 30-minute segments with a short stretch or snack break in between. 
  3. Require your child to work out problems on scratch paper before finalizing answers and reviewing work with an adult for accuracy and completion.

Metacognition refers to being able to think about your own learning processes [5]. If your child struggles with metacognition, they will need to get used to writing things down and using scratch paper rather than relying on their memory.

Know thyself. One important thing you can do as a parent is to teach your children to recognize their own needs, including their learning strengths and weaknesses. Many children, particularly those with ADHD or learning problems, may try to do work and solve problems in their heads. This mental work is the path of least resistance but is not the best strategy for a child with working memory or attention issues.

When to Seek Help

Working memory deficits are common in children, particularly those with slow processing speed or attention deficits. Keep in mind that needing to write things down does not necessarily mean a child has a clinically significant deficit.

If you see challenges with working memory impacting your child’s grades in school or decreasing their confidence, look into it further.

Further Resources on Working Memory

  • Executive Functioning Coach or Tutor: to work on the child’s academic weaknesses, work completion, planning, and organization. It is nice to take this role off the parent and utilize a professional instead. 
  • 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 at school. 
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and look at possible symptoms in mental health or behavioral contexts.
  • 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 Working Memory Challenges in Children

  • Attention Problems: difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges holding information in working memory [2]
  • Perseverating: challenges 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 ability to follow directions and focus on tasks
  • Executive Functions: difficulties related to planning, sequencing, organizing information, and carrying out a task in a timely manner [2, 3, 4]
  • Processing Speed: difficulties in the fluency of 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. Repeat directions as they may seem to forget otherwise 

References on Working Memory In Childhood

[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.

[3] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.

[4] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, second edition. 

[5] Reid, Robert, & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz & Hagaman, Jessica L. (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, second edition.

Book Resources on Working Memory In Childhood for Kids

Esham, Barbara (2015). Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the wiggle fidgets. (New edition) (Adventures of everyday geniuses.)

Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).

Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2021). How do I remember all that? You can listen to it here.

Cook, Julia (2006). My mouth is a volcano. Stein, David Ezra (2011). Interrupting chicken.