SPiCE Skillbuilding Scoop: Working Memory Skills and Strategies

By: Jen Schehr, Intervention Specialist

Working memory, or short-term memory, refers to thoughts or information that you temporarily retain in your memory so that it is available to complete a task.  It acts as a kind of shelf in your brain that can hold several items at a time. The number of items each person can hold in his or her working memory at a time varies, as everyone develops at their own pace and has different memory capacities.  Young children may only be able to hold onto one or two items in short-term memory. Children and adults with ADHD or ADD typically struggle with weak or limited working memory. Working memory is necessary to learn new ideas and skills, follow multi-step directions, to take in new information to be committed to long-term memory, and to remember what to do or bring on any given day.

We can increase the amount and importance of information that is stored in the working memory, and help to move ideas into the long-term memory for later retrieval through several strategies.  

Let your child know when you’re about to share important information that he or she needs to remember.  Make sure you have his or her attention, provide a short count of details to be recalled, help with visualization, and have him or her repeat it back to you.

Establish a daily routine that includes putting things away in the same place every time, right away.  To avoid nagging and constant reminders, create a schedule of important steps in daily routine using pictures and words with your child.  Have him or her include what materials to bring. This can be adjusted to be most appropriate based on your child’s needs and age. Check that the child is prepared and has truly checked and completed each task or packed each needed item consistently until the routine is established, and reward that behavior.

Monotask.  Only one thing should be the focus or task at a time.  Multitasking is linked to shorter attention spans and unfinished tasks.  Limit your workspace to only the needed materials and avoid distractions.  Have a short list of what needs to be done, and do only one thing at a time.

Use multiple senses to take in and use information.  We use both verbal and non-verbal (visual and spatial) memory to take in and retain information.  Visual-spatial memory is often stronger in children, particularly those with ADHD or ADD. Pictures and images are often more powerful than words.  Visual images of the non-verbal working memory help the brain to act, and the verbal working memory acts as its guidance system. Figure out what senses or combination of senses help your child retain information best.

Break it into meaningful chunks.  Instructions and tasks should be broken into meaningful chunks, and new information can be set to songs, rhymes, pictures, or groupings which are typically stored in the brain as one chunk.  This way, more can be stored in the working memory at one time. For example, phone numbers may be stored as 3 chunks: (111)222-3333.  

Build on associations to known information.  Think of known information as hooks on a wall.  New information without any association will just “fall to the floor” without anything to hold on to, but associations give it a place to go and an avenue for retrieval.  

Add humor.  Have your child come up with a silly association, picture, or mnemonic device to remember several names or concepts.  For example, have him or her picture a funny image to recall the meaning of a vocabulary word such as nervous dogs performing a skit for the word “skittish.”

Externalizing.  Help your child to use the information and created frameworks to store and recall it.  Creating a physical representation helps to commit ideas to memory without overtaxing the brain.  There are lots of ways to do this, but here are a few that can work for students of all ages.

  1. Write it down. This uses muscle memory and so is more effective than typing it into a device.  Include imagery, not just words. This is helpful for creating everything from schedules and to-do lists to goals and notes. 
  2. Use the Color, Symbol, Image Routine to capture the essence of an idea.  After a new concept is taught or book is read, have your child identify and draw a color, a symbol, and an image that makes him or her think of the new idea, and describe the meaning of the color, symbol, and image verbally or in writing.

  3. Concept Mapping helps to externalize ideas, build connections, categorize, and prioritize the importance of concepts and details.  Post-its work well for this because they can be moved around as new information comes in or as your child makes new connections.