How to Teach Children With Working Memory Problems

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Students who have difficulty with working memory often appear to be distracted and off-task. This can be due to the fact that children with working memory problems tend to tune out once they have lost track of the steps needed to complete a task. It is possible that this is one reason that memory difficulties and ADHD are correlated. However, there is good news. Working memory can be increased, and modifications can be made so that a student with a working memory problem can be successful in the classroom.

1 Practice memory tasks

Practice memory tasks. Having students memorize poems, quotations and other items can help strengthen the working memory. Assign children short pieces to memorize at first, and gradually increase the length of the work.

2 Allow students

Allow students to take open-book tests when appropriate. Rosemary Tannock, Ph.D., a psychologist and psychiatry professor at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, points out that “working-memory deficits might also underpin some reading disabilities.” Individuals who have difficulties with working memory often cannot remember more than the last few words that they have read in a given selection. This makes comprehending text very difficult, and test scores can plummet. When students can access the material and review it, scores will increase.

3 Connect facts and vocabulary words and to physical movement

Connect facts and vocabulary words to physical movement. If you are teaching the meaning of the word “luxurious,” tell students to twist an imaginary diamond ring on their finger. If you are teaching the location of continents on a globe, link the continents to a physical location on the body. For example, the North Pole would be the head, the equator would be the waist and Antarctica would be the feet. Have children touch the part of their body where the different continents would be located.

4 Teach complex ideas and problems and one step at a time

Teach complex ideas and problems one step at a time. If you are teaching long division, the first day you teach, instruct learners to only do the first part of the problem—seeing if the divisor will go into the first number of the dividend. The second day, demonstrate the next step, and have students do only the first two steps. Continue in this manner. Taking steps slowly will ensure that students with working memory problems can master complex skills.

5 Ask the student

Ask the student to repeat directions back to you. Learners who have problems with working memory may feel self-conscious about not being able to remember things. If you have given a series of directions for a task, discreetly ask the student to tell you the steps to do the work. This is a good way to check for understanding.

6 Write down complex directions

Write down complex directions, step by step. Whether it’s a math problem or a lengthy project, writing down the steps to completing a task can really help students with memory problems. You’ll also likely see an increase in understanding from all students.

Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.