What Are Executive Functions? The Importance of Working Memory

In order to set goals, make decisions, and stay on task, our brains utilize a set of skills called executive functions. These skills involve many different areas in the brain and act as a kind of ‘management system,’ coordinating things like motivation, emotions, and attention. Executive functions help us figure out what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Considering how these skills work together, there is not one singular list of executive functions. Different experts may classify these executive functions differently. Some emphasize inhibition while others focus on organization or activation. However, there is a general agreement that one essential executive function is working memory.

What is working memory?

Working memory is a skill that involves holding and manipulating some information in one’s mind for a short time period. Maintaining information in your mind helps with learning, reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving. If you have ever repeated a phone number to yourself to remember it, you’ve used working memory! Strengthening this skill helps in all domains of life. Remembering to grab your phone, wallet, and keys on your way out of the house involves working memory. In school, working memory is essential for taking notes while listening during a lecture, following multistep directions, and doing mental math. Rather than storing forever, working memory holds onto information temporarily. The brain is working hard to keep this information in mind while problem-solving, doing physical actions, and engaging in self-control.

Children are developing working memory skills as they grow. Younger children are challenged by multistep instructions as well as recognizing letter shapes and sounds. Older children who have mastered those skills deal with increasingly complex reading comprehension and self-directed learning. Evidence of using working memory is demonstrated when children refer to previous experiences in a new situation or shift activities within a particular task. Working memory also allows people to reorganize their thoughts or materials to control their attention to what they’re doing. Using the short-term memories that are kept in mind to accomplish tasks is a skill that is important throughout the lifespan. Fortunately, people have the ability to strengthen these skills! There are different strategies for supporting this executive function shared by both children and adults, such as rehearsal. 

Is your child struggling to remember all the steps in a series of directions? Do they lose track of details in a story? Is math extra difficult for them? It’s possible they’re struggling with working memory. Deficits in working memory can lead to forgetfulness and difficulties with task completion. Individuals who struggle with working memory may have a hard time in school and in their careers due to these issues. 

Wondering about your child’s executive functioning skills? Take our EF Quiz for some more insight.

Assessing your child’s level of working memory skills is a vital first step in addressing this executive function. Across all ages, people can integrate ways to practice working memory skills into their routines. One simple global way to work on working memory is starting where you are already comfortable, adding one small piece of information at a time until it becomes comfortable as well. This strategy is known as scaffolding. Parents can help scaffold these skills with their children, supporting growth step by step. Adults can also look to peers for support with this. Additionally, utilizing sticky notes, a paper calendar or planner, and writing to-do lists are all classic low-tech habits that can help reinforce working memory skills. Reviewing schedules with your child in the morning, during the day, and in the evening can also help with processing and holding information. Repetition and reminders are extremely helpful! 

High-tech tools can also be an incredible asset for people with poor working memory skills. However, there can be a learning curve in getting used to these resources. Mastering the use of the available software, apps, and tools that support working memory is well worth the effort but can take a bit of time to get used to. Once individuals have an understanding of how these programs work, the next step is to remember how and when to use them. Training in the use of these technologies and making their use into habits is often the key to their successful use in supporting weak working-memory skills. Making sure the approach to screen time is one that is goal-oriented and well-structured is immensely helpful.

At LearningWorks for Kids, we have a series of courses focused on developing executive functioning skills such as working memory. Kids can play their favorite video games or use a fun app all while strengthening their working memory skills! 

Check out our list of games and apps that support working memory here

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