There are various elements that contribute to the many complex cognitive functions of the brain. Working memory is one such skill. It enables learning and performing routine tasks. It is described as the brain’s ability to retain information it acquires, for use in the long term. This happens even while the brain continues to receive and process other information. Working memory involves the capability of ‘manipulating’ information, allowing the brain to connect new information with memories that have been previously sorted, categorised and stored.
For example, while a child is trying to perform a mental math calculation, it is working memory that allows him to keep in mind the numbers he is given, while simultaneously recalling and applying the process needed to perform the actual calculation. Taking the same example forward, it is working memory that lets him perform a calculation involving more than one step, by remembering the numbers given, making the first calculation and then proceeding with the next part involving the result of the first calculation and a different set of numbers.
Some psychologists believe that working memory is synonymous with short-term memory. However, others believe that the two are distinct. They are of the view that short-term memory only deals with short-term storage of information, while working memory allows for manipulation and transformation of verbal and visual information.
A child’s working memory can be broadly classified into two main sub-types. These are known to begin developing in childhood and reach their maximum potential in early adulthood.
• Verbal or Auditory Memory:
This refers to the verbal information that the brain receives, processes and holds for future use. It aids in reading fluency and comprehension. It also enables a child to follow multi-step oral directions, use previous learning experiences in a new situation and even focus on multiple activities within a certain task.
• Visual-Spatial Memory:
This refers to the ability to manipulate visual information stored in the brain to process new knowledge received. It comprises skills that aid in recognising numbers and letters of the alphabet, identifying shapes and colours, reading, writing and maths. These tasks involve visualising something in order to understand and process information.
Significance of Working Memory in Children
• Allows learning by connecting new information with current knowledge
• Enables following of complex instructions (two or three directions given at once)
• Helps maintain proper focus and concentration on an activity
• Develops fluency in reading skills and vocabulary
• Promotes the ability to pick up math skills easily
Tips to Boost Your Child’s Working Memory
Most people remember visual images better than verbal or written information, as images are less abstract. Encourage your child to visualise what she has seen or heard to get an actual image of a concept. Reviewing the image strengthens the particular memory. By mentally picturing what is required of a specific task, she can focus and process the sequence of events that necessitate its completion.
• Active reading
Reading requires one to recall relevant stored information in order to understand the text. Active reading helps a child improve language, vocabulary and comprehension. Once your child has read a story or book, engage him in a discussion. Ask him to recount the chronological sequence or talk about key events in the book. He can even make notes in the margins when reading a lengthy book to help remember something significant in the story. Reading aloud, especially emphasising keywords or phrases, also helps the making of mental notes.
• Memory-enhancing games
Memory and card games are a sure way to better visual memory skills. Processing visual information involves looking at images and remembering certain details and aspects, which help in memorising them. Games that encourage training our visual memory also help in concentration, paying attention to detail and classifying information according to their similar or different attributes.
• Breaking down instructions
Instead of giving a whole set of instructions together, focus on one task at a time. By breaking down a set of multiple tasks into more manageable parts, your child can process them one at a time. This ensures that he works more effectively and completes the task while the learning process itself is not overwhelming.
• Making connections
New information received is being constantly organised and restructured by the brain. Forming associations and connections with different details enables easy and effective learning. It also helps retrieve stored information or long-term memories. Using analogies that your child is familiar with simplifies the memory process. If there is no information to connect to, then it is most likely that the new information will not be processed at all.
When you child learns something new, ask her to teach it to you. This practice encourages her to go over what she has learnt, makes sense of it and memorise it, thereby enabling it to be stored in her long-term memory.
• Relying on memory aids
It’s not always easy to memorise multiple things. Encourage your child to create and use his own memory aids. Writing notes or keeping to-do lists relating to important information, assignments or even a sudden idea is an excellent way to stay ahead of things. Writing down something that he has newly learnt is also an effective way to memorise.
• Nutrition and Sleep
All said and done, a healthy diet and adequate sleep greatly influence working memory. The brain needs to be fed nutritiously with the required vitamins, and kept well hydrated too. Vitamins E and B12, antioxidants and folic acid are known to improve memory skills. Poor sleep also has negative effects on performance and the capacity of the working memory as well.
If you find that your child has trouble with working memory, do consult a professional without delay. An occupational therapist can help with a specific intervention plan that consists of a series of activities designed to help improve working memory.
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