What Kids Need to Know About Their Working Memory | Deborah Farmer Kris | 5 Min Read

Have you ever walked into the kitchen to get something, only to have your mind forget what? Or left the grocery store with everything on your mental list except the one thing you really needed for dinner?

Every day, we encounter the limitations of our working memory. 

When your kids forget to brush their teeth or turn in their homework (that is sitting completed in their backpack), they are facing the same challenge. The answer is not lecturing, bribing, or berating; it’s helping kids understand their working memory and then build routines and workarounds to address its inherent limits. 

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is basically a temporary holding area for our thoughts while we are using them. It’s also where we hold new information that comes at us — data that may or may not eventually find its way into our long-term memory. 

Barbara Oakley, author of “Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying” describes working memory as an octopus sitting in our prefrontal cortex, juggling a set of balls. It can hold about four “balls” at once before they start dropping. As she told me in an interview, working memory limitations are why many students struggle at following multi-step directions. It’s not a lack of focus. Their working memory simply does not have the capacity to “keep in mind” something like a five-step process — unless they’ve practiced those steps so many times that it has become a routine that doesn’t require active thought. 

Students — particularly those who have working memory struggles — need concrete strategies for moving material into long-term storage. Here are a few hacks you can teach your kids to empower them to use their memory systems more effectively.

1. Teach Kids About Chunking

Try this experiment with kids to help them understand the purpose and limits of their working memory: ask them to repeat back a sequence of three numbers or items (e.g. 1, 22, 3 or banana, strawberry, apple). If they are paying attention as you speak, that will likely be an easy task. 

Now increase to five items. The task will be harder for many kids and require more concentration and mental rehearsal. 

Now increase to 10 items. Most kids simply can’t hold a string of novel words for that long in their working memory. They don’t have enough “slots.” They will likely remember the first few and last few words but forget those in the middle of the list — the same reason kids might complete the first and last task you ask of them, but forget the in-betweens.

Now try giving kids a string of numbers they already know well — like a familiar 10-digit phone number. They will likely be able to hold this number PLUS a couple of items in their mind because the phone number is a single “chunk” and so only takes up one working memory slot. 

So one way to improve our memory capacity is “chunking”: taking pieces of information and combining them into larger units that tie together. 

Here are some chunking strategies we can teach kids:

  • Group information by type or category: Trying to remember dinosaur names? Try grouping them by large carnivores, small carnivores, large herbivores, small herbivores. 
  • Write your notes in different colors: Color can set some items apart. Perhaps you highlight the causes of a conflict in one color and highlight key figures in another. Or perhaps important equations are always written in purple in your notes.     
  • Take Picture Notes: Our brain loves pictures; take the information and draw quick sketches that represent what you are learning — chunking information into visual form.
  • Use a mnemonic device: Memory devices — such as “My Very Excellent Monkey Just Served Unicorn Noodles” to remember the order of the planets — can help the brain store a string of information with very little effort. 
  • Turn information into a song: Can you still sing along to songs from your childhood? There’s a reason kids learn their ABCs first through song. Combining words and music creates an instant chunk.  
  • Turn your studies into a story: Whether you are studying photosynthesis or quadratic equation, try explaining it like a story to a pet, stuffed animal, or a younger sibling. Stories are inherently memorable.

All of these are forms of chunking: the goal is to take lonely pieces of information (that your working memory octopus is likely to drop) and group them together in a memorable way. Then when we need to pull the information into our working memory, we can pull the whole chunk rather than try to juggle the pieces.

2. Teach Kids to Use (Mental) Places and (Physical) Spaces

When I walked into a seventh-grade class and told them they would be able to name the first 20 United States Presidents in order by the end of our 40-minute class — and that it would be relatively easy — no one believed me. 

But they did it, with the help of the first 8 minutes of this video. And the following week, the majority of students could still name most of the presidents, without further study. 

I wasn’t teaching history; I simply wanted to demonstrate a technique called The Memory Palace. This strategy taps our brains’ spatial memory — which is fairly well developed — to support our working memory. 

How does it work? Mentally place what you want to remember in familiar physical places. For example, if you want to memorize your shopping list, you might imagine a banana on the floor, flour and oil covering the kitchen counter, a strawberry in the bathroom sink, garlic in the toilet, and onions in the bathtub (watch this short video for a demonstration). When you want to remember the list, you mentally walk through the house and picture the chaotic scene.

Here’s another way to tap the power of places and spaces to augment memory: Don’t just study in one spot. Move around! If you have a history test on three chapters coming up, try studying one chapter in your room, another under a tree, and yet another in the kitchen. Review your lines for the play while swinging or out on a walk. The physical environment will become part of what’s encoded in your memory, so when you get to a specific problem, you might imagine yourself under the tree reviewing that very topic.  

When kids struggle with memory — from mastering math facts to remembering the steps of a task — it’s so easy for them to feel like something is wrong with them. You’ve heard their self-talk: “I’m stupid.” “I’ll always be bad at math.” “She finished before me — that means she’s smarter than me.” When we take steps to demystify our brains’ memory systems, we empower them to find the strategies that work for their beautiful brain. 

Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)

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