Think of working memory like a mental sketch pad; a place to store information for short periods of time while we’re working through a task. Kids, teens, and adults use this skill on a daily basis to completely basic and complex tasks. For students, these tasks range from completing simple mental math in our heads while completing a math activity to following multi-step directions to finish a project.
What Is Working Memory?
Working memory is the temporary storage of information in the brain in order to complete task. This is different from long-term memory, because it means juggling bits of information for short periods of times instead of trying to store it for years to come. This is one of the critical executive functioning skills necessary for success. Those with stronger working memory abilities can more easily remember directions, complete multi-step activities, and work through challenging problems.
It’s important to mention that working memory doesn’t work alone; it relies on other executive functioning skills to support it, such as self-control, attention, and flexibility. It’s another reason why it is important to teach executive functioning skills explicitly and practice them often.
When Do We Use Working Memory?
Kids, teens, and adults use working memory skills on a regular basis. As an adult, one simple example to illustrate working memory is remembering a mental shopping list while in the grocery store. It can be difficult to remember everything, right? We might try to juggle the items we need in our heads while walking through the store. To support working memory skills in this example, someone might write a list or say the items back to themselves in their head (“milk, eggs, flour… milk, eggs, flour”).
Here are a few more examples of working memory in action from a child or teen’s perspective:
- Completing mental math problems.
- Remembering a to-do list for a homework assignment or project.
- Following multi-step directions to complete a task.
- Remembering the plot of a short story.
- Completing multi-step math problems.
- Remembering homework assignments long enough to write them in a homework log.
Building Memory Skills
The good news is that there are many different activities to support working memory skills. While early research was unclear, more recent findings suggest that working memory may be able to be expanded through training and practice. There are always supports, strategies, and practice to help along the way. Not only do these examples give meaningful techniques students can use, but learning them can also provide confidence. As always, not every strategy is going to work for every child or teen. It’s worth learning and practicing different techniques to see what works for each student. Here are a few techniques to help you get started.
One of the most basic strategies for working memory is learning to take effective notes. It’s helpful for notes to be concise and brief while also capturing the most important information. Often, kids and teens need to be directly and explicitly taught skills for writing notes.
Practice by telling students that you are going to read about a topic (it can be anything!) and they will need to pick out three important points you discuss. Non-fiction texts and articles are great for this. As you read, have them write down their three important points on sticky notes or in a notebook. After reading, discuss the important points.
Sometimes we can’t remember everything; we have to write information down in a list! This is another important point to teach kids and young adults, who sometimes feel overly confident in their abilities to remember instructions (i.e. The student who says they don’t need to write down their homework, but when they get home, they can’t remember what to do).
Practice making lists for all sorts of tasks: homework, the steps to start a project, the steps in a science lab, and even the day’s schedule. Writing these steps out can help them linger in a child’s brain a bit longer, while also creating a permanent record for what to do next.
Use Brain Games
Brain games are puzzles, brainteasers, and other activities that can make working on working memory skills a bit more fun. As a bonus, these also work on various other executive functioning skills such as attention, metacognition, planning, and time management. Create your own brain games, or use these digital and printable executive functioning brain games to get started.
Make Meaningful Connections
Information is better stored in our brains when it is meaningful to us. That is why making connections to information is both a strategy for short- and long-term memory. When working with information you want students to remember, try asking some of the following questions:
- What does this mean in your own words?
- Why is it important?
- When is another time you might need this information?
Visualizing is picturing images and words in our brains. In an adult real-life example, you might do this while someone is giving you directions on how to get from point A to point B. Picturing the route in your mind can help you navigate to where you want to go. The same is true with following any set of directions or instructions. While going over the steps for a project or activity in class, have students close their eyes and imagine doing each step.
Make Up a Story
Practice making up a short story with whatever information you need to remember over a short period. You can practice this with any objects or vocabulary words. Just as an example, let’s use these words: bird, window, sun, red, smile. You can come up with the story: A bird flew by the red house’s window just as the sun was shining. A boy smiled as it flew by. Do this activity with your students and see what quick stories they can come up with to remember the key words. Note you can try with both pictures and words!
Research has shown that moderate exercise can help improve thinking and learning abilities. Make exercise a daily habit in the morning to get started with kids and teens. Try yoga, zumba, stretches, or jumping jacks. It can also be fun to let kids themselves be the leader in whatever exercise routine you choose.
Air drawing is using your fingers to make imaginary drawings. This can be a very helpful strategy for mental math or remembering quick directions because it helps kids and teens “see” and “feel” what they are doing. For example, when doing mental math (such as in the example above), students might “draw” 11 with 13 underneath to visually add the numbers together. Students can similarly “draw” this out on a desk with their point finger. Find what works for each student!
Practice Mental Math
Mental math is a great way to strengthen working memory skills. Of course, this can be tailored to each individual student age and ability level. It’s important to note that practicing mental math isn’t about memorizing facts, but actually juggling the numbers in your head while solving a problem. For example, you might ask students to add 11 and 13.
When giving mental math problems, it’s important to focus on accuracy instead of speed. Kids and teens who are still building up their working memory skills might work a little slower and that’s okay! Give them the time they need to build their confidence.
Chunk and Group Information
Chunking is breaking information down into more manageable pieces. Since we don’t have an unlimited amount of working memory space in our brains, chunking makes easier to remember and recall information when we need it. One simple example of this is spelling out words: fri-end or Wed-nes-day. Another example is remembering sections for our grocery list instead of trying to remember every single item off the top of our head. You might group what produce you meat separately from the meats you need. Breaking these pieces of information down can help them stick longer in our brains.
You can practice this with kids by giving a set of items, numbers or letters. Then, have students repeat them back in “chunks.” For example, if you are remembering the number 135684, a student might say: 13-56-84 or perhaps 135-684.
Mnemonics are memory devices we use to remember a longer set of words or phrases. One of the most common mnemonics used is PEMDAS, or “Please excuse my dear aunt Sally” to remember the steps for order of operations. Practice by making a mnemonic device for:
- The order of the planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune (MVEMJSUN)
- How to spell the word FRIEND
- The five great lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario (SMHEO)
Use Puzzles and Games
Many games, puzzles, and activities can help boost working memory skills. These can be great to do as a brain break or targeted directly to strengthen executive functioning skills. Here are a few favorites to test out:
- Follow the Beat – Clap out a beat with your hands. Have the student copy it right back. You can continue this with longer and more complicated beats as the student improves.
- Tongue Twisters – Say a phrase and have the student repeat it back. This can be fun because you can take turns giving this a try. Come up with your own silly phrases or use well-known tongue twisters.
- Card Games – Games like Uno and Go Fish are great options.
- Chess – A favorite game that works on skills like planning, attention, and working memory at once.
- Wait A Minute – Ask a question but have students wait a full minute (or longer) before answering. See how long they can hold onto their answers before they forget!
- Distraction – A game you can find on Amazon that boosts attention and working memory skills.
Read more about games to improve and strengthen executive functioning skills for kids and teens.
Make a Song
Have you ever considered how we can more easily remember song lyrics than text from a book? When we put words and information into a song, it can more easily be held in our brains for the short- and long-term. Try making up a song about what homework needs to be finished or the steps to clean a room. Silly as it might sound, it just might work!
Working memory is closely related to attention, given that it is considerably more difficult to juggle information in your brain when you are less focused. Consider what some common distractions are (friends, television, phone) and come up with strategies for reducing them.
Teach Coping Skills to Manage Stress
While not directly related to working memory skills, kids and teens need strategies to help them manage stress in the moment. This is important because it can be stressful and overwhelming to work through challenges with any executive functioning needs. Kids and teens (and even adults) cannot think clearly when stressed and overwhelmed. Teach and practice coping skills to help kids stay calm. These strategies might including using positive self-talk, writing in a journal, or reading. Every child is different, and it’s important to find what works for them. Use this free coping strategies poster to practice and discuss some coping skills.
Routines are structured and sequential activities to help get a task done. When we develop routines, we take the guess work out of tasks. This ultimately leaves more mental space for other more challenging things. For example, a homework routine might include sitting down at the desk at 3:00pm, taking the homework log out, checking assignments, and starting right away. This gives kids and teens a boost to finishing the assignments by taking the organization and planning piece out of the equation.
Routines need to be practiced and practiced again. Further, routines really can be developed for anything from brushing our teeth at night to gathering materials for school the night before. Just a few examples are:
- Cleaning up a room each night
- Getting ready for school in the morning
- Starting morning work when students enter the room
- Cleaning up after snack time
- Lining up and waiting to exit the classroom
- What to do when students finish work early
Hold Group Chats
Having conversations involves working memory because we have to think about what the other person is saying while also considering how we want to respond. With this, group chats are a healthy, fun, and meaningful way to boost working memory skills (while also building relationships of course).
Use this free set of 100+ questions to help get kids and teens talking.
Mindfulness helps calm the body and mind. Recent research has shown that mindfulness training can help reduce stress and have a positive impact on working memory abilities. A few ways to give mindfulness a try include:
- Practice mindful breathing techniques.
- Take a mindful walk outside, noticing your surroundings.
- Mindful coloring while listening to calming music.
- Use a mindfulness journal.
- Use mindfulness task cards.
- Use mindful brain breaks.
One final note: Not every strategy will work for every student. Give a few a try. Teach, practice, and discuss them to see what works for your learners along the way.