In this 3-part series on executive function skills (EF), we’re taking a deep dive into three main areas of EF: Working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Together, these make up the “control center” of the brain, allowing us to learn, plan, organize, communicate, accomplish tasks, and much more. In this article, we’ll explore working memory.
What is Working Memory?
Working memory is a type of “active” memory that allows us to hold information in our mind long enough to use it. There are two types of working memory: auditory and visual, which are integral to tasks such as paying attention, following directions, and learning reading and math.
Here are some examples of working memory:
- When reading or listening to a story, remembering details long enough to answer questions about the story.
- When engaging in a conversation, keeping track of what the other person is saying long enough to respond appropriately when it’s your turn to talk.
- When listening to a multi-step verbal instruction, keeping all of the steps in mind long enough to follow them successfully.
- When doing a math problem, remembering details of a word problem long enough to solve it.
You may have noticed we said “long enough” in every example; this is because working memory is a temporary process. After successfully following a set of multi-step instructions or solving a math problem, we don’t need to hang on to those details anymore. However, working memory can contribute to long-term memory. For example, if we perform the same multi-step process over and over, we eventually store those steps in our long-term memory so we can do them automatically.
Challenges with Working Memory
Some children struggle with working memory. Using the examples above, this might look like:
- Having a hard time describing details of a story they’ve just read or listened to, such as setting, character traits, or plot.
- Getting “lost” in a conversation.
- Doing the first step of a multi-step instruction and then forgetting the other steps.
Breakdowns in working memory often overlap with developmental disorders, learning differences, and/or attention challenges.
What Can be Done to Improve Working Memory?
If you’re concerned about your child’s working memory, the first step is to reach out to a specialist, such as a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist, for an evaluation. If a working memory challenge is confirmed, your specialist can create an intervention plan for your child and offer individualized tips for supplementing therapy at home.
Here are a few simple things you can do at home to support working memory:
- Reduce the working memory “load” by breaking large tasks into smaller steps, delivering multi-step directions one step at a time, or delivering information more slowly.
- Provide extra practice for new skills, because it takes longer for children with working memory challenges to commit new skills to long-term memory.
- Use visuals for sequential tasks, such as a morning routine. These can be pictures or written lists that remind your child what to do next.
- Reduce distractions, especially when it’s time for homework! Working memory requires focus, so it’s important to remove stimulation that competes for your child’s attention.
- Play games like “Memory” or “Go Fish”.
Stay tuned for the next article in our Executive Function Series: What is Inhibitory Control?