Working memory and its impact on children’s development and behaviour by Sally Ashcroft




Sally Ashcroft is a qualified dyslexia assessor and tutor and provides support for children with literacy and working memory difficulties in the Hampstead area.  She has been Senco of St Christopher’s school in Belsize Park and a governor in charge of SEN provision at Fitzjohn’s Primary.  She has had a long-term interest in diagnosing and remediating working memory deficits and offers both the Cogmed and Meemo programmes to students which can be undertaken at home.

I’ve always thought ‘Working Memory’ is a rather misleading name for a brain function which really concerns itself with how well we are able to pay attention. If it was up to me, I’d call it ‘Attention System No. 1’ or ‘Priority Attention System’.  Many parents I see say, ‘But my child has a terrific memory,’ and find it hard to distinguish between the long-term memory systems that we normally refer to when we speak about memory and the working memory system which is so vital for learning.  Often their children have been noted as having difficulties paying attention in class or being able to remember what the teacher has just finished saying and usually this resonates with what parents also noticed in the home setting.

Our working memory enables us to (i) pay attention, (ii) block out distractions, (iii) hold on to information whilst we manipulate and think about a subject and (iv) connect incoming information with what we currently hold in our long-term memory store so we can build on our learning.  Can you imagine trying to learn effectively without being able to do anyone of these four things fairly proficiently?

Study after study has proven that working memory is the most reliable predictor of academic success – not IQ, nor what sort of school you go to, nor whether your mother ate fish oil in large quantities when pregnant whilst listening to Bach. It is no exaggeration to say that your child’s working memory is key to how much information your child will absorb, understand and transfer to the long-term memory for use later; in exams and in life.

In some schools all children are given working memory training which is fantastic, everyone, of all ages and abilities can and should strengthen this attentional system.  However, practical constraints of a busy curriculum mean many parents seek to provide this work outside of school.  This is particularly important for those children with a dyslexic or ADHD profile who will have inherited a working memory deficit, they particularly need to strengthen their ability to process verbal or visual (or both) instructions at the same rate as their peers.

Of course, teachers and parents can learn how to segment information into small snippets, use visual supports, insist on eye-contact and ask children to ‘teach-back’ concepts to ensure active learning is happening.  Studies show that the working memory system also works better – no surprises here – if the child has a good sleeping routine, a healthy diet and is feeling confident and happy.  But to super-charge the working memory and extend the amount of information it can hold before distraction rules, parents may like to consider one of the many products now available that enable specific working memory training to happen at home.

I find that Cogmed and Meemo offer the most discernible and long lasting results.  Both systems are age differentiated and take approximately six weeks, with training taking place five times per week.  The holidays are a great time to undertake such work in preparation for the term ahead but many do manage to train during term time.   The programmes begin with a fun workshop that explains exactly how the working memory works and suggests a variety of games that the whole family can try.  Your child will need your support (and a few rewards) to get the most out of the training. Thereafter coaching takes place each week and children gain a real insight into the strategies they can use to help them focus in the classroom.  It is not unusual for improvements to be noticed within a few weeks and to last for a year or more.

The recent research into working memory impairments has shown that many children who struggle to focus in the classroom are not wilfully being disruptive or dreamy, they are wired that way.  Fortunately, this is a condition that we can help with.

Sally can be contacted at [email protected]

See also


Sally can be contacted at [email protected]

See also


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