Working memory in children:

How to improve attention problems and learning difficulties in kids

© 2010 -2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Working memory, also known as WM, is a better predictor of school achievement than IQ.

But kids with WM problems are often misunderstood.

Does your child have attention problems?

Does she have more trouble following directions than do other kids her age?

Then please read this.

WM capacity: How big is your child’s "mental workspace"?

Can you add together 23 and 69 in your head? When you ask for directions to the post office, can get there without writing the instructions down?

Such tasks engage working memory, the memory we use to keep information immediately “in mind" so we can complete a task.

It’s like a mental workspace or notepad—the “place" where we manipulate information, perform mental calculations, or form new thoughts.

Just as different computers have different amounts of RAM, WM capacity varies from person to person. You can see this if you try giving the same verbal instructions to different kids.

“Please give me the red pencil, then pick up the blue eraser and put it in the green box."

Some kids find this relatively easy. Others try to carry out the instructions, but lose track of the details along the way.

This leads to trouble in the classroom.

Kids with low WM capacity may look like they aren’t paying attention.

They often commit “place-keeping" errors, repeating or skipping words, letters, numbers, or whole steps of an assigned task.

They may frequently abandon tasks altogether, not because they are lazy or uncooperative, but because they have lost track of what they are doing.

The problem shows up in many different domains. Math immediately comes to mind, because we all have experience trying to do calculations “in our heads." But low WM capacity affects language, too.

For instance, a child with low WM capacity may find it hard to write sentences. By the time he finishes spelling the first few words, he’s forgotten what he intended to say next. Similarly, he has trouble with reading comprehension. While he’s working hard to decode written words, he loses track of the overall “gist" of the text.

Is this related to ADHD?

Not exactly. Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have very low WM capacity. But they are also impulsive and hyperactive. It’s possible to have poor WM skills without showing these additional symptoms.


According to researchers Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway, about 70% of kids with learning difficulties in reading have poor WM skills (Gathercole and Alloway 2007).

What about age? Isn’t it normal for young children to have relatively poor working memory skills?

Yes. The average 4-year old has maybe one-half or one- third the WM capacity of an adult (Gathercole and Alloway 2007). To determine if your child has a problem, you need to compare him to other kids his own age.

Are poor working memory skills a sign of lower intelligence?

Not necessarily. WM seems to be a basic component of 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.

And it’s likely that there are different kinds of working memory, too. Some kids may have especially poor auditory WM, so that they really struggle with spoken verbal instructions. Others may have very poor visual-spatial WM, making it difficult for them to keep up in math.

So we shouldn’t assume that poor WM means a child isn’t smart.

And here’s an intriguing thought: Maybe we can design training programs that will help kids improve or compensate for weaknesses in WM.

Can you improve WM with computer-based training?

Consider this recent study by Joni Holmes and her colleagues (Holmes et al 2009).

The researchers identified a group of school kids--aged 8 to 11--who performed poorly on the Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA), a test for screening kids with WM deficits.

Next, the kids were enrolled in a computer-based training program developed by Cogmed (Holmes et al 2009). For about 35 minutes a day, kids played computer games that that challenged their working memory skills. Game tasks 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.

• Watching a group of “asteroids" move across the screen and light up in sequence. The student must try to recall which asteroids lit up and in what order.

• Watching lamps alight one at a time on a grid, then seeing the grid rotate 90 degrees. Can the student recall the correct sequence--even though the lamps are now in different positions?

For kids 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.

How did the training pan out?

After about 6 weeks of training, researchers re-tested the students’ WM 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.

In fact, the adaptive training was so successful that most of the kids were no longer classified as having poor WM capacity for their age.

These results sound exciting, but there is a catch. Subsequent studies have failed to demonstrate that improved performance on these tasks translate into any substantial improvements in the real world.

As Zach Shiphead and his colleagues (2012) concluded after analyzing the published research, "The only unequivocal statement that can be made is that Cogmed will improve performance on tasks that resemble Cogmed training."

This makes wonder if the best approach is to target a few key tasks that kids perform in school -- like arithmetic calculations -- and teach kids how to better perform those tasks.

WM in the classroom: More important than IQ?

In a recent longitudinal study, Tracy and Ross Alloway measured the IQs and working memory skills of 5-year-olds. Then, 6 years later, researchers tested the kids again, assessing not only IQ and WM, but also each child’s academic achievement in reading, spelling, and math.

The results were sobering. Early WM skills were a better predictor of later academic achievement then were early IQ scores (Alloway and Alloway 2010). And, unlike IQ, working memory did not correlate with the parents’ socioeconomic status or educational level.

Who needs help?

Lots of kids. Researchers estimate that about 10-15% of school kids have working memory problems, but these are often misidentified as deficits of attention or intelligence (Holmes et al 2009).

How do we identify kids with low WM capacity? And what can we do to help?

Signs of low WM capacity

Researchers Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway describe the profile of a child with low WM capacity (Gathercole and Alloway 2007). Typically, this child

• 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"

• Has trouble with activities that require both storage (remembering) and processing (manipulating information)

Gathercole and Alloway suggest strategies for teaching kids with WM difficulties.

For example, they advise teachers to break down tasks and instructions into smaller components. It’s also important to prompt kids with regular reminders of what they need to do next to finish a task.

Kids should be encouraged to ask questions when they have lost their way. And kids may benefit from being asked to repeat key information back. They may also benefit from special training in the use of memory aids--like note-taking.

Can we do even more? The controversial Cogmed research suggests we can train kids to improve at very specific tasks. Perhaps, then, researchers and educators can develop programs that target the sorts of tasks most useful to kids in the classroom.

Meanwhile, screening struggling kids for working memory problems sounds like a good idea. If your child seems inattentive and distracted, it may not be obvious that he would benefit from being taught about memory aids. Identifying a child with poor working memory should help us home in the tactics most likely to help. How do we do this?

Assessment and training

As noted above, the kids in the training study were diagnosed using Tracy Alloway’s Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA). You read more about the test--and download a demo-- here.

If you are interested in WM training for your child, check out Tracy Alloway’s excellent website about working memory, which summarizes her research and offers links to many services. There you will also find information about Jungle Memory, a computer program for kids aged 6-16.

Improving your child's working memory skills: More information For more information about improving your child's academic performance, check out my database of articles about learning and intelligence in children.

In addition, read this article about the ways that gesturing--i.e., "talking" with the hands--may help kids "free up" WM and improve their capacity to learn.

References: Working memory in children

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.

Gathercole SE and Alloway TP. 2007. Understanding working memory. London: Harcourt.

Holmes J, Gathercole SE, and Dunning DL. 2009. Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Dev Sci. 12(4):F9-15.

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving Fluid Intelligence With Training on Working Memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(19), 6829-6833.

Shipstead Z, Hicks KL, and Engle RW. Cogmed working memory training: Does the evidence support the claims? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 2012; 1 (3): 185 DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.06.003

Content last modified 9/12

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