What Is Working Memory?
Understanding our mental ‘scratchpad’
Imagine this: You’re throwing a party and ask your child to help set up. The instructions you give him seem simple enough: Put his toys in his room, move everyone’s shoes to the closet and set the table. He agrees, but when you go check on him later, the table isn’t set, his shoes are still in the hallway and he’s put toys … in the closet.
What’s going on?
Kids who have a hard time “staying on track” may be having problems with working memory, which is an executive function that plays a major role in how we process, use and remember information on a daily basis. Remembering a phone number, recalling directions, remembering how to use grammar and structure, writing an essay and applying the quadratic formula are all mental tasks that use working memory.
“Working memory is sort of a category above attention,” says Dr. Matthew Cruger, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s keeping in mind anything you need to keep in mind while you’re doing something.” Whereas long-term memories stay with us even when we’re not thinking of them, working memory is an active process — a mental scratchpad where we hold and process all the information we need to access at any given time.
A limited workspace
But what happens when the scratchpad gets overloaded?
“Our brains have a finite capacity for juggling a lot of information at once,” explains Linda Hecker, MEd, the lead education specialist at the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. Hecker, who also serves as an associate professor at the college, says she helps her students understand the role of working memory by describing it as a table. “We talk about it as ‘cognitive workspace.’ When you have a lot of new information it’s easy to overload your cognitive workspace and things start falling off.”
Dr. Cruger agrees, noting that when kids with working memory issues are asked to perform a new task and think of five rules for how the task should be done, they often come up short. “They can’t hold both sets of directions in mind at once. They end up doing the task, but making a lot of mistakes along the way — or only completing half the assignment — because they’re not able to keep in mind what they need to do, what comes next and the rules for how it’s done all at once.”
Learning disorders and working memory
Everyone struggles with the limits of working memory sometimes — forgetting an item from a shopping list, or drawing a blank when you’re trying to remember the rules of a new game. But for kids with learning disorders, Hecker says, working memory often presents a more significant problem.
“Kids with LDs have smaller working memory capacity,” says Hecker, because adjusting for the difficulties that come with LDs — like dyslexia, nonverbal learning disorder or auditory processing issues — takes up a considerable amount of their “cognitive workspace.”
That’s because they need to consciously break down and perform processes that other kids do automatically. For example:
- If a child has auditory processing issues she has to work much harder to listen, recall and apply what’s being said in class.
- A kid with a non-verbal learning disorder has to actively work to appropriately interpret and respond to social cues – like facial expressions, sarcasm and implication — a process that’s second nature for most kids.
This extra work means more clutter on the “table,” which leaves less space for new information and often translates to a slower processing speed overall.
ADHD and working memory
Kids with ADHD can also struggle with working memory, which is one of the core executive functions — the mental skills responsible for helping us stay organized, set goals and complete them. Weaknesses in executive functions are what make kids with ADHD prone to being disorganized as well as being inattentive. Like learning disorders, kids with ADHD have to actively work to stay focused and organized — things that tend to be automated for other children.
For example, keeping guiding rules or principles in mind is more difficult for kids with ADHD who are already having trouble tuning out distractions. They might be external distractions, such as a dripping faucet or kids playing outside, or internal, like anxiety or even just wondering what’s for dinner later.
“A smaller cognitive workspace means that working memory functions — holding on to information, recalling instructions or following through with tasks that require planning — are harder to perform,” says Hecker. “Less space means things are more likely to get lost along the way.”
One of the challenges kids with working memory issues face, Dr. Cruger notes, is that their lapses can easily be misinterpreted as bad behavior. When they fail to follow a set of instructions they appear to be unmotivated or even oppositional which can lead to conflict with teachers and parents and accusations of not trying hard enough. Kids hate having to admit that they can’t remember things, he adds, and they tend to try to minimize the amount of effort they put into things that don’t yield positive results. And the criticism they get in turn is a disincentive for them to expend the extra energy it takes for them to keep track of what’s expected of them.
For example, explains Dr. Cruger, “If you say to your child, ‘Go put your pajamas on, put out your clothes for tomorrow and brush your teeth,’ but he either only completes one or two of the actions, or keeps coming back asking ‘what was the third thing again?’” Without context, it might seem like your child is being disobedient, but once you know what to look for, “it’s a pretty obvious sign he’s struggling with working memory.”