Working Memory: What It Is and How It Works

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Working memory is a basic mental skill. It’s important for both learning and doing many everyday tasks.

  • Working memory allows the brain to briefly hold new information while it’s needed in the short term. It may then help to transfer it into long-term memory.

  • Most kids with learning and thinking differences have trouble with working memory.

Working memory is an ability that allows us to work with information. It helps us learn and perform even basic tasks. Most kids with learning and thinking differences have trouble with this vital function. That’s especially true of kids with executive functioning issues and ADHD.

Here’s what you need to know about this key ability, and how it affects learning.

What Working Memory Is

Working memory is one of the brain’s executive functions. It’s the ability to hold on to new information so we can turn around and use it in some way. Working memory allows us to hold information without losing track of what we’re doing.

Kids need this ability to perform well in school. Consider this scenario:

Your child’s math teacher asks the class to add 21 and 13 in their head, and then subtract 6 from the sum.

Working memory enables your child to hold on to and visualize the numbers the teacher has called out. It also allows her to remember what the sum of 21 and 13 is, so she can then take away 6.

Your child might not remember any of these numbers by the next class or even 10 minutes later. And that’s OK. Working memory has done its short-term job and allowed her to tackle the task at hand.

How Working Memory Works

Working memory is like a temporary sticky note in our brain. It holds new information in place so the brain can work with it briefly and perhaps connect it with other information. (Attention plays a big role in this process.)

For instance, the brain might put events into sequence. Or sort different types of objects into categories. In math class, working memory can allow kids to “see” the numbers the teacher is saying as symbols in their head.

Working memory isn’t just for short-term use. It also helps the brain organize new information for long-term storage.

Trouble With Working Memory

Poor working memory makes it hard for kids to use the information they get in school. In math class, your child might remember the numbers the teacher said to add: 21 and 13. But she might not recall what she’s supposed to do with them. Or she might not hold on to that sum of 34 so she can subtract 6 from it.

Following practical instructions may also be difficult. The teacher may ask your child to put her snow boots away, but first hang up her coat. Your child may only do one task or forget which one she’s supposed to do first.

Your child may also find that the information she has remembered doesn’t make much sense. Because of her working memory problems, her brain didn’t package it properly in the first place. If kids learn information in a disjointed way, they have trouble using it later.

How You Can Help

If you think your child may have trouble with working memory, it’s important to find out if that’s really the case. It may look like she’s having trouble holding on to information when she actually has an attention issue—the information was never funneled into the brain’s storage system in the first place.

A full evaluation can determine why your child is struggling. If it turns out that working memory is the reason, there are other steps you can take to get a fuller picture.

You may then want to see if she also has other problems with executive functions that are linked to ADHD. If she does, medications for ADHD may help improve working memory while the medications are working.

You can also partner with the school to develop strategies to help your child work around the problem. This might include writing brief notes to keep in mind bits of information that may be hard to remember, like tasks she has to do. It might also include breaking down those tasks into a manageable number of steps.

Learn about signs of executive functioning issues and ADHD, and how you can get your child evaluated. It’s also important to know about other challenges related to working memory that may affect learning, such as trouble with sequencing.

Key Takeaways

  • Working memory affects many aspects of learning.

  • Many kids who appear to have working memory issues also have issues with attention and other executive functions linked to ADHD.

  • Strategies like writing things down may help with working memory issues. So may ADHD medications.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Nelson Dorta, PhD 

is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of medical psychology in child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

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