How Memory Works in Kids

At a glance

  • Lots of things affect how well we remember information.

  • Memory doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a process.

  • Having trouble remembering things doesn’t mean there’s a problem.

Most of us don’t remember everything we hear, read, see, or experience. Does that mean we have a problem with memory? No. But memory is complex and even confusing.

For example, kids might remember the lyrics to dozens of songs, but not the names of the state capitals the class reviewed last week. Why does this happen? Why do some things stick while others don’t?

Learn how memory works, and what you might be seeing.

The Process of Memory

The memory process is complex. It happens in stages and involves different types of memory.

Memory is made up of three “storage” systems in the brain. Each one plays a different role. These storage systems include:

Encoding. This system takes in information (like song lyrics) and holds it in short-term storage. What gets in depends partially on how well you’re paying attention to it.

Long-term memory. The second system is more like a long-term storage unit. It stores two kinds of memories:

  1. Episodic memory: This type of memory is all about important personal events and the feelings connected to them. Think about your last family event. You probably remember who was there, what you talked about, and the food you ate (and even how it smelled). You remember the feeling of being around family.

  2. Semantic memory: The long-term storage unit also holds all those facts you can recall when asked. When did Christopher Columbus sail to America? Most adults can quickly answer “1492.” This kind of general fact is stored in the semantic memory system. This is the main type of memory used for storing school-related learning.

Recall. The third memory system is the recall system. It finds information that’s in storage and “pulls it out.” Think about the Christopher Columbus question. If 1492 doesn’t pop into your mind in a second or two, you’ll use other strategies to find it. You might silently recite the Columbus song from grade school with the “ocean blue” lyrics.

The recall system taps our higher-order thinking skills to find information. These key skills let us:

  • Organize what we know about a topic

  • Check and form associations (Grandma’s house is where you first tried buttered popcorn.)

  • Hold and compare information (The weather that day was unusually hot.)

There’s another type of memory system that works with the others. It’s called working memory. This system holds information in mind for a very short time, so the brain can either use it right away or store it.

Attention and Memory in Kids

Interest and attention play a big role in memory. Kids who love music may pay better attention to song lyrics than to things they’re less interested in. They probably also spend more time listening to music than to the history teacher.

Most kids can pay attention when they need to and take in the information that’s important. They can store it in short-term and long-term memory and recall it when they need it.

But some kids have a hard time with memory. Kids who have trouble with focus may struggle with the encoding part of memory. They don’t pay attention to the information they need to remember. Kids who have trouble with language may have a hard time recalling information.

If you’re wondering if your child is having difficulty with memory, there are steps you can take to find out.

Try to notice patterns. Are there certain things your child has trouble remembering? Is it harder for your child to remember things at certain times?

You can share what you’re seeing with your child’s teacher or health care provider. They may have helpful insights or suggestions.

Key takeaways

  • Memory is more complicated than it seems.

  • It involves taking in information, storing it, and recalling it.

  • When kids struggle to pay attention to information, it’s not there to remember.


Read next