Beyond Games: Master Working Memory Skills

What does it take to master something? The “10,000 rule” states that if you put 10,000 hours of practice into anything, you will become an expert. Even for kids who don’t have the interest or ability to spend such a large amount of time on just one thing, practice can still make a difference. So what about executive functions? Can you master working memory skills?

Children who struggle with working memory often have trouble learning new material, but practice helps establish a knowledge base. The more kids practice working memory skills, the less likely they are to struggle with using those skills to learn new material. In this edition of the LearningWorks for Kids Beyond Games series we give you ways to help your kids master working memory skills.

Quizlet is a great tool for helping kids master working memory.Knowing is half the battle. Knowing how many things your child needs to get or do can actually help them remember what those things are. For instance, remembering the number six might help when recalling the items needed for a pizza dough recipe (flour, yeast, salt, sugar, water, olive oil). Remembering that they have homework in three subjects might help your child remember which homework assignments to focus on. Practice this clustering strategy (also called “chunking”) by asking how many things your child needs to recall and encouraging them to group information into meaningful categories.

Be the teacher. There’s an old saying: “To teach is to learn twice.” The process of teaching information requires consolidating what someone has learned into more long-term memory. It also forces the teacher to think about and memorize information in a different way in order to present it to others. Study groups are perfect opportunities for “teaching”; when a child is quizzed on study material by a peer, there is less performance anxiety and a more relaxed setting to compose an answer and organize material in one’s mind. Quizlet is a great app for this as well as just simple memorization.

Connect the dots. Repeatedly reviewing material can build up a large knowledge store of information in long-term memory. And because long-term memory is more permanent — considered “crystallized” — it doesn’t go away. Encourage your child to find a way to connect something they are learning with something they already know. A child might associate the US presidents with Pokemon characters or make up a mnemonic device to remember the order in which they were elected. After a while connecting new information to existing knowledge will help them get better at using working memory. “Mindmapping” using an app like Idea Sketch can also help with organizing material and associating it with preexisting knowledge.

Story time. A child’s account of what happened at a soccer game or during a visit to a friend’s house can be good practice for remembering and organizing memories. Ask questions and give feedback that encourages them to remain on topic, keep thoughts connected, and not repeat anything — all good practice for working memory. You can model this method yourself the next time you tell a story or describe an experience. Point out that you are reporting information in order. Then mix it up and help them see where and when the story is not being relayed in an orderly fashion. Try apps like Prezi and Show and Tell to help them organize and order information and memories in an engaging way that sticks.

Categorize. Studies have shown that the use of category cues like “food” or “sports” doubles the likelihood of remembering other words associated with these terms. Help a child understand how to categorize (another “chunking” method) objects, ideas, and other things with category labels that will help them with remembering. Younger children might need assistance or prompting in coming up with appropriate category cues, due to the inability to make these kinds of semantic connections (for example, needing help in grouping the words pizza, apples, broccoli, cheese, and popcorn into the category of food). Older children might find that an app like Feedly, which serves up online content in a highly organized manner, is good practice for categorizing information.

Do chores. Develop a visual chart of reminders for daily activities or chores. This can help children with visual-spatial working memory deficits by providing them with external visual cues so they no longer need to hold information in working memory. Encourage them to use digital pictures to create a chart in order to remember a daily routine, how to complete a task, and even study material. An app like First Then Visual Schedule or Choice Works can help kids master working memory and is especially handy if your child uses a smartphone or tablet on a regular basis. Ask your child to identify other areas where they are “forgetful” and would like to use visual reminders.


Featured image: Flickr user Peter Lindberg

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