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What is Working Memory?

Updated: Feb 17

Working memory is one of the brain’s executive functions that allows us to work with information without losing track of what we are doing. Working memory holds new information in place so the brain can work with it briefly and connect it with other information. It also helps the brain organize new information for long-term storage so that it can be accessed later on.

working memory perth dyslexia

There are three types of memory – working memory, short term memory and long term memory. It can be helpful to think of working memory as a tray that you temporarily put items on so they can go into storage. Your long term memory is like a cupboard where these items are stored and short term memory is like the open shelves of this cupboard.

When children have poor working memory it is as if they cannot hold many items on their tray and these items fall off or get lost. This can mean their brain stores information in a jumbled way or it may mean the information is not retained at all. The average individual has a working memory that can hold approximately 7 items or ‘chunks’ of information at a time. Children with poor working memory can hold 1-3 items which essentially means their tray can only keep a small amount on it at a time.

There are many tasks that place a heavy load on working memory including:

• Remembering multi-step instructions

• Performing mental maths sums

• Reading comprehension

• Constructing written expression

• Spelling a long or complex word

• Recalling details from a spoken passage or story

Working memory difficulties are common in children with specific learning disorders such as Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. In addition, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder often have difficulty with executive function skills including working memory. Children with working memory deficits need specific support strategies. These include simplifying verbal information such as instructions and breaking down tasks into a manageable number of steps. It can also help to teach strategies such as using mind maps, making lists and note taking to ensure information is retained.

Butterfly Psychology for Kids can identify if a child is experiencing working memory difficulties as part of a comprehensive intellectual and educational assessment. Strategies to support working memory issues are also provided in the psychology report that is developed for your child as part of the assessment. For more information click here.

Adapted from: What is working memory? How working memory affects the five stumbling blocks of Dyslexia (Podcast: Dyslexia Explored)

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