My 10-year-old daughter can never remember my phone number, and I’m not sure why. She sometimes has a hard time with math. Could this be part of it?
Some kids who struggle with math do have trouble recognizing number symbols. And that makes it harder to enter phone numbers quickly. But that doesn’t sound like what you’re describing. In this case, it sounds like a matter of memory, not math.
This kind of memory “problem” can seem baffling. A phone number is pretty basic. You’d think it would be easy for your child to remember. But memory is complicated. Remembering is only one part of it.
Memory is a set of skills that allows us to use information from the past in the present. There are different areas of memory, too, like working memory. This lets us briefly hold on to information so we can put it to use.
Like most skills, memory develops over time. Kids have better memory as their thinking skills get more sophisticated, their memory strategies get better, and their knowledge of the world grows. But until then, their memory can be spotty.
There are three steps to memory, and information can get lost at any one of them. The first is getting information into memory. This is called encoding. We don’t encode everything we see or hear — just what we focus on and find important. So, your daughter might not remember your phone number because she didn’t pay much attention to it and the information didn’t get in.
The second part of memory is storage. New memories can easily be disturbed by other information, new or old. For example, you might have trouble remembering where you parked your car at the movie theater because you’re mixing it up where you parked last time.
The same thing can happen with phone numbers. Your daughter might not remember yours because other information is getting in the way. That could be anything from other phone numbers to multiplication facts.
The last part of memory is retrieval or recall. Our brains attach cues to the information it stores in memory — sights, smells, feelings. It then uses those cues to pull out that information when we need it. We also link new information to things we already know. But sometimes, there aren’t any cues or links, and the information gets stuck.
Think of when you have something at the “tip of your tongue.” The information is in there, but you don’t know how to get it out. There’s a lot more information in our memory storage than we can pull out at any given time. It’s possible that your child knows the phone number but has trouble retrieving it.
Over time, kids get better at sorting out which information is important. They’re less likely to have other information crowd out new memory. And they’re better at using cues to recall information.
Starting around age 5, kids begin to use strategies like repeating information they need to remember. You can help your daughter learn the information by rehearsing it together.
Repeating the phone number many times, singing it, and writing it in something fun like sand are all ways to help your child remember it. You can also work on building “muscle memory.”
It’s normal for kids to not always remember things, even simple things. That typically improves with age. But some kids have trouble with memory that doesn’t go away.
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s memory or attention skills, a good person to talk to is your child’s teacher. You can find out what’s happening in the classroom and see if the teacher has suggestions for what might help.
And if you have other concerns about your child’s math skills, find out what can cause trouble with math.
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About the author
About the author
Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.