EF Skills: Working Memory

By Jenna Prada, M.Ed


Working memory is an important executive function that allows a person to hold multiple pieces of information in their brain while performing tasks • Those with deficits in this area can improve their working memory by adapting strategies that aim to use this part of their mind more efficiently

An important executive functioning skill is working memory, which is the ability to hold information in your mind long enough to use it. Examples of working memory include remembering multi-step instructions while completing a task, recalling the name of a new character in a book as the plot unfolds, or keeping the key information of a word problem front of mind in order to solve it.

Think of working memory as a bucket. Everyone has a bucket that holds a particular number of items, and once the bucket is full, that’s that. It’s therefore important to be deliberate about what’s put in the bucket. If, for instance, your child is holding all of their homework in their working memory bucket, it follows that there is less space in the bucket for details related to a particular problem, instructions for the task at hand, or the list of equipment they need for practice.

Is This Your Child?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child would likely benefit from strategies to improve their working memory:

Does your child…

  • Miss steps on more complex homework assignments?
  • Receive feedback that their work has “careless errors”?
  • Genuinely forget about assignments or chores?
  • Pause in the middle of a task and need to be redirected?
  • Forget classroom procedures or struggle to establish routines?
  • Complete homework, but then not turn it in?
  • Lose or misplace frequently used belongings?
Improving Working Memory

Unlike many executive functioning skills, working memory does not improve with practice. Instead, the goal is to externalize information and set up supports that lessen the toll on working memory. To that end, as you think about any of the approaches below, consider ways that you can help your child build routines around them.

  1. Externalize information. The quickest way to empty the bucket of working memory is to write information down. The less information held in your working memory, the more efficiently you can approach your work. Common ways to externalize information include the following:
  • Keep a planner, homework book, or calendar
  • Write to-do lists
  • Write down the key information for a problem or question
  • Record voice memos
  • Do a “brain dump” at the start of a test by writing down key terms, formulas, or other ideas to reference throughout the test
  • Repeat instructions back
  1. Reduce the load. If you can’t empty the bucket, then try to limit the load. Once your child understands that their brain can only process a certain amount of information at once, they are often receptive to questions such as, “How can you give your brain the best shot at keeping track of everything you need to do?” or “What do you think gets in the way of you remembering that?” After they identify distractors, work with them to find solutions. Ways to accomplish that might include
  • Incorporating a mindfulness practice (e.g., meditation), breath work, or heart rate variability training).
  • Employing simple common-sense actions such as keeping the phone across the room or setting up a quiet work space.
  • Breaking large tasks into smaller steps, focusing only on one step at a time.
  1. Establish routines & practice new skills. Another way to “empty the bucket” is to move information from working memory into long-term memory. This happens when a routine becomes established or a new skill becomes second nature. Create routines by making visual checklists or by asking your child to complete tasks in the same order every day. Visual cues can also help kids incorporate new steps into already established routines. For example, a post-it on a backpack to help a young child remember to grab their lunch on the way out the door.

A similar approach to new skills can help make them more automatic, lessening the toll on working memory. This might mean memorizing a new math formula, practicing a structured approach to incorporating a quote into a paragraph, or simply talking through the key ideas from school each day.

Any and all lists are helpful and support the consistency necessary to establish routines and new skills. Examples include checklists of items your child needs for a particular day or activity, sequential lists of elements to include in an essay, or lists of what to grab from a locker before coming home.

  1. Activate other areas of the brain. Of course, no matter the number of routines and environmental supports you put in place, your child will absolutely still need to call on their working memory at some point. Mind mapping, visualization, visual cues can all support working memory by activating the visual processing centers of the brain. Consider any of the following to support your child:
  • Add illustrations to lists you create to support routines
  • Create a hand signal to remind them to grab an often forgotten item
  • Prompt your child to imagine putting a piece of information in a particular spot in a house in their mind
  • Use body language (think charades) when giving instructions
Crossover Skills

You may have noticed that many of the strategies to support working memory overlap with strategies that help students be more organized, initiate tasks, and retain information. These strategies – making lists, breaking large tasks into small tasks, deliberately creating routines – are all executive functioning best practices and have an impact across a wide range of tasks and activities.

Jenna Prada, a certified teacher and administrator, is the founder of the Learning Link and the Director of Executive Functioning & Special Education at Private Prep.

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