"I Forgot" - A piece about Working Memory

I forgot”, she muttered in a small voice when the teacher demanded an answer. Outwardly she looked calm and collected, inwardly she was terrified and tearful. Nightmares would haunt her for the impending nights where she could not escape from her deepest turmoil, even when she was meant to be safe. Safe at home.

This is a little girl who gets filled with anxiety when she forgets, for she tries so hard. Who feels intently ashamed when she is scolded by a teacher who doesn’t know her. A teacher who has no clue that she shattered this girl’s heart when she spoke to her in such a hardened tone of voice, singling her out in front of the class.

A teacher who had no clue how her mother had to pick up the charts of broken pieced of spirit at home, and how much input was required from her OT and play therapist to glue it all back together.

This little girl cares. Sometimes too much. She works harder than most of her peers every single moment of the day. But no one sees it. It is not reflected in any way. She has a hidden difficulty. Her working memory has failed her.

Working memory? What exactly is working memory? Imagine a mental notepad where you write down and work out a mental sum on paper, except that it is figurative speaking as you cannot physically write something down at that moment. So you have to remember something on your mental notepad within your brain when you can’t write it down.

Working memory is somewhat like the tube between short term memory, which takes in all information via the senses and long term memory, which is like the retrieval and archive system. Where short term memories vanish into the sky, never to be seen again, and long term memories sprout deeply into the ground, even accessible still for a good while, when the brain starts to disintegrate in a person with dementia.

Working memory is a hustle and bustle of business, focusing, remembering, temporarily holding information, processing and working, all at the same time. It is like the control centre of cognition. It is remarkable, like the software of a computer, but it has a limited capacity and is fickle to overload and interruption. Imagine this; while driving you hear a telephone number over the radio which you need to remember. Your plan is to keep it in your short term memory until you can pen it down on our phone. So you mutter it repeatedly and softly to yourself using your phonological loop. And then “bam!” an accident on the road distracts you and you can never again recall the number.

Or picture yourself sitting at the dining room table, entering your shopping receipts onto your budget spreadsheet, looking, remembering, adding up mentally… “Mom! Mom! I’m hungry!” Uggg, shift in attention and confusion sets in.

If the above happens, such as that we were disrupted mid working memory, the brain cannot reconstruct what was in the working memory. It is impossible. So you have to start all. over. again. If you think that you had “re-remembered”, it is merely due to your clever adult compensatory strategies. You get an environmental clue that reminds you of what you were busy with. You then access long term memory information, while you work on doing whatever you need to be doing, within your working memory, whether it is writing a complicated sentence for an article on working memory, typing a shopping list while thinking of what to cook, or remembering directions while you drive and keep the address in mind.

This is very important when working with children. When they say they’ve forgotten something, even though we expect them to be able to remember it, they really had forgotten it. When they say they’ve forgotten something, even though they looked like they had intensely listened, they really could have forgotten it so quick. Not due to not listening, or by being distracted, but due to poor working memory. They will NOT be able to re-access the information you had just given them. The only way to help is to REPEAT. Patiently.

Working memory can be formally tested by standardized testing, usually done by psychologists such educational psychologists. “Quality of working memory is the best predictor of learning success.” A study found that poor working memory had an 80% prediction of poor academic attainment. MRI research scans revealed that most efficient brains in children have more hubs (lots of local connectivity) and less long-range connectivity. Working memory itself cannot be enhanced and therefore compensatory techniques are of utmost importance.

Working memory is important for:

  • Mental flexibility – Being able to shift our thoughts in order to respond to situations.

  • Maintaining attention - Keep focus on an ongoing task with multiple steps. We need to remember what we’re doing, and if we don’t actively remember what we’re doing and what the next step is, then our brain instantly loose attention. Our mind then fills itself and becomes interested in something else. So it leads to distractibility. Not as a result of ADHD or inattention. Inattention as a result of not being able to cope with the demands of working memory.

  • Following instructions – This is to do with keeping track of multiple steps. What am I doing, what must I do next and next and so on.

  • Learning – Working memory demands surge as academic demands increase. Often the “wheels fall off” in higher grades when the child needs to do more, multitask more and work more independently.

Warning signs of working memory difficulties:

  • Poor academic progress, especially maths and reading.

  • Exceptional difficulty in following instructions:“

  • Put your sheets on the green table, arrow cards in the packet, put your pencil away and come and sit on the carpet.” John, a learner with poor working memory, put his sheets on the table, but failed to do anything else. When he noticed his peers sitting on the mat, he joined them leaving his arrow cards and pencil.

  • Failures typically involve starting to perform the instructions, (so it wasn’t that they weren’t listening) but failing to complete the consequent steps.

  • They will often ask their friends or teacher what they must do next as they know they’ve forgotten important information. Or if you ask them, they’ll say they don’t know what to do.

  • Place keeping difficulties

  • Copying information from the board. Transferring information from a distant point, and transcribing to a near point which involves holding the information. They will typically copy letter for letter, instead of words. Speed will be very slow.

  • Short attention span and distractible in class; “Always daydreaming”, “Doesn’t listen”, “In a world of his own”.

Working memory develops greatly between 5 to 11 years. Then from 11 to 15 there is not much of an increase and by 15 years most adolescents have the working memory capacity that they will have for life. The increase in capacity (from 5 to 11 years) depends on the increase of use of strategies. Similar to the ones that we use spontaneously as adults. Examples are:

  • Subvocal rehearsal such as saying something in your head or out loud. This typically emerges around age seven.

  • Other strategies emerge at around eight years – such as imagery (pictures in their heads), chunking (similar sounds), linkage (link and make up a story to remember information).

Here are a few tips to compensate and help the child with poor working memory:

  • Identify children at risk. These children must get appropriate classroom adaptations.

  • Learn little and often. Spending long sessions on the same things are bad practice. Splitting it up into shorter sessions are best. So rather spend time on a subject for 10 minutes, three times a day, instead of once but an hour long.

  • Cramming rarely works for children with poor working memory. Rather let them learn and do daily quizzes.

  • Levels of processing – link it to what the child already knows, process the meaning and organise it. Attach meaning.

  • Reduce working memory overload by not have them have to remember three or more sequences (such as numbers or unrelated words).

  • Avoid letting them write or copy complex and difficult sentences – simplify it for them in simple terms.

  • Cut paper into smaller strips with less visual information.

  • Use a black marker pen to cover information that is not important, and a highlighter to highlight the most important parts.

  • Break instructions down – Avoid lengthy ones. Give one instruction at a time, wait for completion, and then give the next instruction. “Put your math book away.” Done. “Take out your readers.” Done. “Open up at page 12.” (Whole instruction can be given to the class, and then individual broken down steps can be give individually to the child with poor working memory, when he hasn’t responded yet.

  • Repeat information when a child looks lost. Don’t expect him to remember or know what to do.

  • Ask the child “Do you remember?”.

  • Use the child’s strengths such as visual aids – icons, mnemonics, checklists or digital audio records, prompts.

  • Share your own strategies with your children such as “Let me WhatsApp that to myself right now before I forget it” or “Let me put this sticky note by my keys so that I’ll remember before leaving today”.

  • Let them take notes in a way that makes sense to them. These can include drawing pictures.

  • Let them demonstrate what they have learned in another way other than writing (especially if they have dyslexia or dyscalcula) such as them making a demonstration video or drawing and telling you about it. Or let them teach it to someone, especially an adult who can ask the right questions.

  • Give a break during tests as they get more easily fatigued.

  • Brain dumping – Write everything down that’s in their heads onto a piece of paper for 5 minutes, before they start with a test. All the things that they’ve crammed and are so scared that they’ll forget while writing the test.

  • Create a visually quiet area (not the messy bedroom). Research shows that the worst place for a child to study in is their bedroom. Get a family study table. All the siblings with an adult gather and everyone “works”. Adult can do admin tasks such as bills or shopping list.

  • Use a timing App that can beep to rest as they get fatigued. (Such as Tabata training apps.) Check how long the child can focus for – if it is for 10 minutes, then set the timer for half that time i.e. 5 minutes focus, then rest. This prevents cognitive overload.

  • Some children may do well with listening to music while learning (even if you can’t imagine listening to music when having to focus). Or else noise cancelling headphones can be used as it limits distractions by eliminating external sounds.

  • Children with ADHD especially tend to procrastinate (combination of feeling overwhelmed by the task plus not having so much interest), so extrinsic rewards can be used with them.

  • Children on the Autism Spectrum (ASD) may only be able to use “visuo-spatial sketchpad” in the brain and not their phonological loop (short term auditory information). They may not be processing things phonologically at all or not optimally, when they read. Reading out aloud may not be a good indicator of their reading ability.

  • Allow scratch paper for working math.

  • Let them move while learning or reading if they want. They can walk around or bounce on a ball.

  • Any little physical burst of movement releases norephedrine and drops cortisol levels. It gives a big rush to the brain and helps with focus. Let the class do a few jumping jacks before the start of a lesson.

  • To regroup and calm them down again, do one minute of meditation.

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