At a glance
Working memory refers to how we hold on to and work with information stored in short-term memory.
Kids use working memory to learn and follow directions.
You can build working memory games into your child’s daily life.
Does your child have a hard time keeping one bit of information in mind while doing something else? For example, you’re making spaghetti together, and your child’s in charge of the sauce. But your child leaves to answer a text and forgets to come back and stir. Working memory challenges can cause trouble with tasks like these.
Working memory refers to how we hold on to and work with information that short-term memory stores. (In the past, the term working memory was used interchangeably with short-term memory.) It’s part of a group of skills called executive function.
Kids use working memory all the time to learn. It’s needed for things like following multi-step directions or solving a math problem in your head. You can help your child improve working memory by building simple strategies into everyday life.
1. Work on visualization skills.
Encourage kids to create a picture in their mind of what they’ve just read or heard. For example, say you’ve asked your child to set the table for five people. Have your child imagine what the table should look like, and then draw it. As kids get better at visualizing, they can describe the image instead of drawing it.
2. Have your child teach you.
Being able to explain how to do something involves making sense of information and mentally filing it. Maybe your child is learning a skill, like how to dribble a basketball. Ask your child to teach you this skill. Teachers do something similar by pairing up students in class. This lets them start working with the information right away rather than waiting to be called on.
3. Try games that use visual memory.
There are lots of matching games that can help kids work on visual memory, like the classic game Concentration (or Memory). You can also do things like give kids a magazine page and ask them to circle all instances of the word the or the letter a. License plates can also be a lot of fun. Take turns reciting the letters and numbers on a license plate and then saying them backwards, too.
4. Play cards.
Simple card games like Crazy Eights, Uno, Go Fish, and War can improve working memory in two ways. Kids have to keep the rules of the game in mind. They also have to remember what cards they have and which ones other people have played.
5. Encourage active reading.
There’s a reason highlighters and sticky notes are so popular: Jotting down notes and underlining or highlighting text can help kids keep the information in mind long enough to answer questions about it. Talking out loud and asking questions about the reading material can also help with working memory. Active reading strategies like these can help with forming long-term memories, too.
6. Chunk information into smaller bites.
Ever wonder why phone numbers and social security numbers have hyphens in them? Because it’s easier to remember a few small groups of numbers than it is to remember one long string of numbers. Keep this in mind when you need to give your child multi-step directions. Write them down or give them one at a time. You can also use graphic organizers to help break writing assignments into smaller pieces.
7. Make it multisensory.
Using multiple senses to process information can help with working memory and long-term memory. Write tasks down so your child can look at them. Say them out loud so your child can hear them. Walk through the house as you discuss the family chores your child needs to complete. Using multisensory strategies can help kids keep information in mind long enough to use it.
8. Help make connections.
Help your child form associations that connect different details and make them more memorable. One way is to grab your child’s interest with fun mnemonics. (For instance, the made-up name “Roy G. Biv” can help kids remember the order of the colors in the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, and so on.) Finding ways to connect information helps with forming and retrieving long-term memory. It also helps with working memory, which is what we use to hold and compare new and old memories.
Memory-boosting tricks and games are just some of the ways to help your child build executive functioning skills. And see how trouble with these skills can affect a child’s daily life.
Teaching kids ways to visualize thoughts can help improve their working memory.
Card games and other fun activities can help build working memory.
Finding ways to connect information can help your child with long-term memory as well as working memory.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.