Thursday, 30 May 2019

My child is smart, but why aren’t they making expected progress at school?



The answer may be a Working Memory difficulty!

But, how can my child have a memory problem? He can remember the names of over 50 dinosaurs!

To answer this it’s best if we first take a look at a simple model showing some of the different types of memory.



 Input is all the information we collect from our different senses. It first goes through our ‘Short Term Memory (STM). STM only lasts a matter of seconds and simply has to store the information without needing to process it in anyway e.g. remembering a phone number / recalling a sentence we have just heard.


Working Memory refers to the ability to hold, manipulate and process information in our brain over a short period of time; it can be known as our mental workspace or notepad (Sue Gathercole 2008). On average, an adult cannot hold more than six or seven units of information in working memory at a time; and this all depends on whether or not the material to be remembered is organised in a meaningful way or not. Difficulties with memory performance do not appear to be due to more general factors such as language difficulties or a low IQ, but are very closely linked to dyslexia; as it affects the pupil’s ability to retain and recall phonological information.

Working Memory is one of the most important indicators of academic success across the curriculum, specifically in terms of maths and reading. Children may have very good 'Long Term Memory' (LTM) for things they are interested in, places they have been etc, but still find it incredibly difficult to remember what they have learned or to follow instructions.

Working Memory is a significant difficulty and affects an estimated 1 in 10 children.

That’s on average of 3 children in every classroom! And typically affects more boys than girls.

However, it is surprising how often this problem is overlooked and not fully understood by teaching staff or healthcare professionals. The impact of a working memory deficit can have a huge impact across the child’s entire school and personal life.
Below is a list of possible signs that your child may have a Working Memory problem:
 In general:

-       Holding and manipulating instructions in the brain is difficult

-       They can usually be the last to carry out an instruction

-       They miss whole steps out of the instruction

-       Long discussions may result in inappropriate / disruptive behaviour

-       Can get easily distracted by people talking around them



In the classroom:

-       After getting off to a good start in the task:

o   the child may start ‘zoning out’

o   Not finish at the same standard

o   Work can be rushed and finished early

o   May abandon task half-way through

o   If the teacher interrupts in middle to do a ‘check-in’, may not remember where to start again

o   Teacher more likely to call their name to ‘hurry up’


-       There may be differences in the level of work depending on the amount of support / environment / time of day

-       May have to shout out the answer before they forget it

-       Struggle to learn new vocabulary

-       May struggle to do mental maths

-       Fail to check work for careless errors

-       May work better in a smaller group than whole-class learning

-       They may watch others around them a lot to work out what to do

-       Struggle to copy notes from the board

-       Often get in trouble with peers for ‘getting the rules of the game wrong’

-       Difficulties navigating around the school

-       Can read the words, but not able to tell you what they have read

o   But when the word is read to them, they understand it better



Classroom tasks that place heavy demands on Working Memory:

-       Following multi-step instructions

o   “after you have put your pencil case in your tray with your spelling book, go and line up at the door”

-       Remembering sequences

o   Multi-step math questions e.g. long multiplication

o   Timetables, days of the week, months of the year

o   Remembering all measurements of ingredients when you cannot see the recipe

-       Problem solving activities

-       Coursework

-       Collecting the equipment needed for an activity

-       Writing the date, title and learning objective before starting the work



Information can be lost from Working Memory when we are distracted by the environment around us, noise and movement or when its limited capacity is overloaded. When demands on the child’s Working Memory are too high, they may appear to be distractible and have limited concentration.

It is important to remember that children are often acutely aware of their memory difficulties – even from a young age, so it is vital to support them as much as possible and to reduce any anxiety they may have about forgetting things. If you are concerned about your child's memory difficulties please contact a Speech and Language Therapist or Psychologist. 

Strategies on how to support Working Memory are coming up in the next blog! So stay tuned!


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