Working memory refers to how we hold on to and work with information. It is key to our learning and ability to function successfully within our environment. It is about allowing the brain to briefly hold new information in the short term and retrieve information from the long-term memory if necessary. We need to remember what we hear, see, feel smell and taste in order to process, analyse and understand our experiences.

There are two main types of working memory: auditory and visual. Both are important in helping children learn to read. Auditory working memory helps children retain the sounds of letters long enough to sound out new words. Visual working memory is used in remembering those words that can be recognised quickly (i.e. sight words).

Children with learning and attention issues often have difficulties with working memory. They are easily distracted and lose their train of thought. Working memory weaknesses will make it challenging for children to follow instructions and retain information. Imagine this instruction from a teacher to the class, “Tidy up the toys, get a piece of paper and a pair of scissors and go to the blue table.” To complete this successfully, a child will need to be able to switch their attention to listen to the verbal instruction in the first place. They will then apply their working memory skills to hold on to the words, translate them into meaning, relate them to the context they are in and then perform the actions in their correct sequence. Children with weak working memory skills often have trouble staying on task and to complete the task.

Like most skills, children’s working memory capacity increases with age over childhood. Children with working memory problems may be described as having poor listening skills, appear to be ‘lost’, or having attention issues. They may find following through on instructions difficult or completing tasks as requested challenging.

If you think your child may have trouble with working memory, it is important to have it a psycho-educational assessment to evaluate this. The assessment can determine why your child is struggling. If working memory turns out to be the reason, the assessment will identify strategies and ways to help your child strengthen their skills and learn how to cope. You can always speak to our psychologists if you have any concerns.