Working memory (WM) is one of the cognitive executive functions (EF). WM and EF difficulties in general are factors in many neuro-developmental conditions. This makes so much of what happens at work, university, school or indeed many everyday situations more challenging than it needs to be. The good news is that there are plenty of small accommodations and adjustments that can make day-to-day learning and life easier.
Let’s take a whistle stop tour through ages and stages
Pre-school and early years
This is when you hear people talking about ‘school-readiness’. Working memory is just one of the executive functions, that typically begin to become evident when children are between 3 and 5 years old. At this age WM difficulties might affect children’s ability to hold an idea long enough to speak and be understood, to remember and follow the beginning of an instruction by the time it has finished being given, or to manage the multiple processes required for early writing.
Teach routines explicitly – this helps ALL children, but especially those with EF difficulties related to WM or processing. Make lots of opportunities for speaking and listening activities, including plenty of modelling and revisiting of familiar stories so that early language tasks can start to become more automatic. Ensure there are plenty of activities on offer that can promote fine motor development, so that pencil skills embed easily. If difficulties persist, refer to SaLT, audiology/ENT an/or OT as appropriate.
Many children find certain things tricky, and many behaviours are part of typical development. Teachers and parents can spot the occasions when things are too tricky or happen too often. Often a little well-timed support will be all that’s needed, but when that is not enough, it may be time to plan further adjustments or seek advice.
At this age, WM difficulties will probably mean that instructions are getting much harder to follow. Maths can be especially challenging. It’s a good idea to provide topic vocabulary in advance – a degree of familiarity will avoid children going home with no idea what’s been discussed all afternoon. Look out for situations where a child might be overly reliant on copying their neighbour to know what to do. Certain routines may seem obvious to adults and some children, but they still need to be taught and reinforced if they are to become automatic for all.
Referrals can be made as above, and additionally or alternatively for assessment of specific learning difficulties. As well as previously outlined adjustments, make sure that visuals and other prompts are well placed and that children have been taught to use them. Having spare equipment to hand will save time and avoid embarrassment – once children (or adults) with EF difficulties have been upset, they can find it much harder to focus. WM will often deteriorate under stress.
Secondary school age
Some young people will have been identified for support, but others may not experience noticeable difficulties until after transition to senior school, when expectations are suddenly higher for academic and organisational skills. And that’s before we mention homework.
Where the familiar routines of primary school have been supportive, students now have to work out for themselves what needs to be done in what order and what equipment they need to complete the task. Teachers might consider something an everyday classroom or school activity, but to the student with WM difficulties, developing automaticity can require explicit instruction and practice.
It’s essential that support is targeted at any stage, but as young people approach exams and all that that entails, it’s vital to get the right accommodations. This may mean assessment, if that has not already happened.
With higher demand on all EF skills at a developmental stage that’s difficult for many even without these challenges, small adjustments can make a world of difference. Many of the support techniques already mentioned will continue to help. Don’t think of it as superfluous or overkill – each time a skill is used for a new task or at a more advanced level, it needs to be re-embedded.
At this stage, technology can come into its own. There are many apps and pieces of equipment that will enable a bright student with WM difficulties to reach their potential. Most school tasks, including reading and writing place high demands on WM. Use of a laptop or tablet can be the difference between success and despair. Speech to text means that ideas can be recorded in a timely fashion (good practice for using a scribe in exams if that is going to be needed). Text to speech offers the chance to process the full meaning of a text, rather than expending all available energy just to decode the words. Having course materials available via a pupil portal gives students control over their learning outside school, but make sure that parents and carers have the information needed to support (not control) access.
Of course there’s more, but that’s a start. Please feel free to add any questions into the comments, and I will do my best to answer them in future blogs.
References and further reading
Barkley, R. (2012) Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. New York: The Guilford Press.
Diamond, A. (2013) ‘Executive Functions’ Annual Review of Psychology, 64 pp. 135-168.
Gathercole, S. and Alloway, T. (2007) Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. London: Harcourt Assessment.
Kauffman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.
Meltzer, L. (ed) (2007) Executive Function in Education: from Theory to Practice. New York: The Guildford Press.
Zelazo, P. and Müller, U. (2010) ‘Executive function in typical and atypical development.’ in Goswami, U. (ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development, Second edition. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.