Executive Functioning: Working Memory

 EF Working Memory

Working Memory refers to a part of our short-term memory.  When information enters this part of our memory, we only have about 5 seconds to interpret it.  This means that we have only seconds to process the information, and categorize it into Long-Term Memory in order to be able to remember it later. 

This can pose a problem for a lot of kids.  When a child has a slow Working Memory, it can be very difficult for them to process information as quickly as we typically ask them to.  Think about a classroom, for example.  When a teacher is giving multi-step directions orally, a student only has a few seconds to be able to process what he/she is being asked to do before that information is lost.  If the child cannot process and categorize the information quickly enough, he/she will not be able to remember the directions while working.  If a child is constantly asking the teacher to repeat what he/she has just said, this will appear as though the child was not paying attention.

The difficult thing about Working Memory is that it is not a skill a child can really improve on.  We typically see those scores are fairly concrete across the lifespan.  There are, however, several strategies we can teach our kids in order to help them compensate for lower Working Memory abilities. 


  • Write down oral directions. Writing them down will better engrain what is being asked into memory, and there will be something to reference later.

  • Take a picture of the directions that the teacher wrote on the board. This is helpful for homework, as the student might not otherwise have access to all of these instructions.

  • Repeat information back to yourself. The more you repeat something, the more likely you are to remember it.

  • Make connections to what you are trying to remember. By making a meaningful connection, it increases the chance of you remembering it. For example, when learning that the part of the brain responsible for memories is the hippocampus, I tied it to a memory I had of seeing a hippo as a child. I associated hippo with hippocampus, and an old memory to the function of that part of the brain. This play on words was an additional strategy that helped me remember.

  • Create an acronym. A well-known example of this is PEMDAS - Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, to help remember the Order of Operations in a math problem. PEMDAS actually stands for Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction, but remembering your dear Aunt Sally helps a child learn the order.

  • Priming - this is an excellent way to help your memory. The more you hear about something, the more likely you are to remember it. Ways you can help your child apply this to school is to read and take notes prior to class. That way the material in class isn’t new, and the child will already be somewhat familiar with it.

  • Chunking - Trying to remember everything all at once is never a good idea. If the child has to remember any kind of list or sequence, breaking it into a few, smaller lists will be helpful. A good example of chunking is how we break down phone numbers. Instead of trying to remember the entire 11 digits as a whole, we break it down into 3, 3 and 4. 123-123-1234.

  • Paraphrase - by putting the information into your own words, it will help you see if you truly understand what is being said.

  • Graphic Organizers - By outlining the steps in a process (reading, writing, math, etc.) the student only has to remember and complete one step at a time. This reduces the confusion about which steps come when and allows the student to better complete the assignment.

  • Memory Games like Simon Says or Bop It can help a child practice these skills.

IEP/504 Accommodations

While the strategies listed above can help, having the following accommodations in place will be crucial to the child's success at school. 

  • The ability to ask for clarification.

  • Receiving a concrete daily schedule for class.

  • Provided notes listed in sequential and numeric order with close responses required.

  • Having directions written out instead of, or in addition to, them being given orally.

  • Getting instructions one step at a time.

Accommodating for Working Memory deficits and teaching your child strategies in which he/she can better remember things will be crucial to his/her overall academic success.