Working memory in children:

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What every parent needs to know

© 2010 – 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Working memory, also known as WM, is a bundle of mechanisms
that allows us to maintain a train of thought.

It's what we use to plan and carry out an action — the
mental workspace where we manipulate information, crunch numbers, and see with
our "mind's eye" (Cowan 2010; Miller et al 1960).

Can you add together 23 and 69 in your head?

Remember a list of grocery store items without writing them
down?

Recall the seating arrangements of a dinner party after a
brief glimpse at the table?

These tasks tap WM, and whether or not you succeed depends
on your working memory capacity, or
WMC.

People with larger capacities can juggle more information at
once. This helps them process information more quickly, and the benefits are well-documented.
People with higher-than-average WMC are more likely to excel in the classroom.

For example, when researchers have tracked the development
of primary school children, they've found that early gains in visuospatial WM predict later achievement in mathematics (Li and Geary 2013; Li
and Geary 2017). Working memory is also predictive of language skills, like the
ability to keep track of the ideas presented in a long or complex sentence (Zhou et al 2017).

On the flip side, individuals with poor WM
skills at a disadvantage. They are more likely to struggle with mathematics and
reading. They may also struggle with following spoken directions.

Please give me your drawing, then put away the crayons
and clean up your desk.

It might sound easy to you. But for younger children — who
have lower capacities than adults do — these instructions may
cause an information overload.

The same thing is true for older kids who have low WMC for their age. There is too much to juggle, so they lose track
of what they are supposed to do.

So it's clear that having
strong working memory skills is a good thing. Is this just another way of
describing an individual as "intelligent?"

Not necessarily.

WM seems to be a basic component of fluid intelligence. It
affects how kids learn. It also influences how kids perform on tests, including
achievement tests and IQ tests.

But we can’t equate WM with overall intelligence. For
instance, working memory isn’t the same thing as IQ.

Some kids perform well on IQ tests and yet have relatively
mediocre WM skills (Alloway and Alloway 2010). How is this possible? Tests like
the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) have distinct subtests.
Some specifically target WM, others don’t.

Moreover, there are components of intelligence — like
rationality — that go largely unmeasured by IQ tests, and don't correlate with WMC. In recent experiments, researchers found that
individual differences in WMC had no effect on whether or not people fall prey
to belief bias, a common failure of logical reasoning (Robinson and Unsworth
2017).

Finally, it's possible to have very selective WM deficits,
which can lead to selective deficits in intellect performance. For example,
children diagnosed with developmental dyscalculia — a learning disability
relating to arithmetic — perform normally on many tests of WMC, except one:
They are less likely to remember the precise order of items on a list (Attout and Majerus 2015).

What about other learning disabilities?

In addition to dyscalculia, reading problems are also linked
with WM. Studies suggest that about 70% of kids with learning
difficulties in reading have poor WM skills (Gathercole and Alloway 2007).

And attention problems?

Compared with typically developing children, kids who have
been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder are more likely to have WM difficulties (Kuhn et al 2016; Alderson et al 2016). But it's possible
to have poor WM skills and not fit all the criteria for an attention deficit
disorder diagnosis.

What about age? Isn't it normal for relatively young children to have poor WM skills?

Yes. When researchers have administered the same WM tests
across age, they've found evidence for steady improvement, with adults
performing almost twice as well as young children (Gatherole et al 2004;
Gatherole and Alloway 2007).

For example, in WM tasks dependent on tracking items in a briefly-presented visual array, adults remember approximately 3 or 4 objects (Cowan 2016). Five-year-olds recall only half as many (Riggs et al 2006).

So how can we tell if a child has low WMC for his or her
age?

Researchers estimate that 10-15% of school age children are
struggling with low WM capacity (Holmes et al 2009; Fried et al 2016). How can we identify them?

A professional diagnosis depends on administering special
tests, like Tracy Alloway’s Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA), which
you can read about here.

But we can also get a good idea of who is struggling by
observing everyday behavior. According to Susan Gatherole and Tracey Alloway (2007),
the typical child with WM difficulties shows the following signs.

He or she

  • has normal social relationships with peers;
  • is reserved during group activities in the classroom, and
    sometimes fails to answer direct questions;
  • finds it difficult to follow instructions;
  • loses track during complicated tasks, and may eventually
    abandon these tasks;
  • makes place-keeping errors (skipping or repeating steps);
  • shows incomplete recall;
  • appears to be easily distracted, inattentive, or "zoned
    out"; and
  • has trouble with activities that require both storage
    (remembering) and processing (manipulating information.

What can we do to boost working memory skills? Can we enhance WM through the
repeated practice of simple memory games?

You might have heard of computer-based memory games that are
supposed to enhance WM, or even IQ. Do they actually work?

It depends on what you mean by "work." For
example, consider the computer-based training program developed by
Cogmed. In
one study, researchers identified kids with low WMC, and assigned these
children to play a series of computer games designed to challenge their
WM skills (Holmes et al 2009). Some of these games included:

  • Hearing a series of letters read aloud ("G, W, Q, T,
    F…") and repeating them back
  • Watching a battery of lamps light up, one at a time, and
    then recalling the correct sequence by clicking the correct locations with a
    computer mouse.
  • Hearing and watching a sequence of numbers while they are
    spoken aloud and flashed on a keypad. After each sequence, the student is asked
    to reproduce the sequence in reverse order by hitting the correct digits
    on the keypad.

For children in a control group, the difficulty level of
these tasks remained easy throughout the study. But for kids in the treatment
group, the program was adaptive–i.e., they were given progressively more
difficult tasks as their performance improved.

After about 6 weeks of training, researchers re-tested the
students' working memory skills, and the results were pretty dramatic. While
both groups improved, the kids in the adaptive program did much better. Their
average gains were 3 to 4 times higher than those of kids in the control group.

But there was a crucial catch: Improvements were found only
on tests that closely resembled the training games. And that has been the
pattern in other studies.

Training helps people get better at the specific tasks for
which they are trained. But it doesn't seem to help people perform better in
other areas — like reading or mathematics. "Far transfer effects"
haven't panned out — not in the largest,
best-designed, most carefully controlled studies conducted to date (Melby-Lervåg
et al 2016; Shiphead et al 2012).

So if you are interested in improving a child's performance
on working memory games, then this type of training is worthwhile. And perhaps
someday we'll find out these games deliver long-term benefits that researchers
haven't yet been able to detect.

But if you're goal is to help your child in the classroom,
it probably makes more sense to target the subject areas that are giving him or
her trouble.

If a child struggles with mathematics, seek out special training in the relevant mathematical
skills — like counting, number sense, or basic arithmetic calculations (Kyttälä
et al 2015).

If a
child is having trouble with reading, look for programs that designed for kids
who need to build literacy skills (Melby-Lervåg
et al 2016).

What else can we do?

As Susan Gathercole and Tracey Alloway note, we can help
children compensate for WM limitations in a variety of ways. For example:

  • We can break down tasks into smaller
    subroutines, so kids can tackle just one component at a time.
  • We can adjust the way we communicate, so we don't introduce
    too much material at once, and provide children with regular reminders of what
    they need to do next.
  • We can ask kids to repeat back new information, and help
    them connect it with what they already know.
  • We can prompt kids with regular reminders of what to do
    next, and encourage them to ask questions when they feel lost.
  • We can
    teach them how to create and use their own memory aids — like taking notes.

And research suggests other tactics too. To get the most
from your WMC, you need to understand how it functions.
What disrupts WM? What tricks allow people to pack more data in the mental
workspace?

For more information, check out my upcoming evidence-based tips for
improving working memory performance.

References: Working memory in children

Alderson RM, Kasper LJ, Patros CH, Hudec KL, Tarle SJ, Lea
SE. 2015. Working memory deficits in boys with attention deficit/hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD): An examination of orthographic coding and episodic buffer
processes. Child Neuropsychol. 21(4):509-30.

Alloway TP and Alloway RG. 2010. Investigating the predictive roles
of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of
Experimental Child Psychology 106(1): 20-29.

Alloway TP. 2007. Automated working memory assessment. Oxford: Harcourt.

Attout L, Majerus S. 2015. Working memory deficits in
developmental dyscalculia: The importance of serial order. Child Neuropsychol.
21(4):432-50.

Cowan N. 2016. Working Memory Maturation: Can We Get at the
Essence of Cognitive Growth? Perspect Psychol Sci. 11(2):239-64.

Cowan N. 2010. The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working
Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 19(1):51-57.

Cowan N. 2001.The magical number 4 in short-term memory: a
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Content last modified 6/2017

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Image of toddler with mother by Bill Strain / flickr

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