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How to Help a Child With Weak Working Memory

disabilities-act-kid-tutorDoes your child have a weakness with verbal (auditory) or visual-spatial working memory? If so, you may find that it is greatly interfering with academic achievement. Fortunately, there are many ways to help—from teaching ways to compensate to lifestyle changes to brain-training techniques.

Strategies for Managing Weak Working Memory

Here are a few places to start to help a child with poor working memory.

Know your child's strengths and weaknesses

As a parent, you want to support your children any way you can. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses can make a big difference, says Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida.

She says that sometimes teachers tell their students with dyslexia to just keep repeating the information over and over to themselves. “But this will be hard to do for students with dyslexia who have a verbal working memory problem,” says Alloway. “It's really better to target their strengths—to try to use visual aids to support their learning, for example.”

H. Lee Swanson, PhD, distinguished professor of education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, agrees. Use your child's preferred way of processing information. For a child whose visual-spatial skills are strong, he suggests taking information from a math word problem and inserting it into a visual diagram. This uses a strength to help solve a problem.

Help compensate for weaknesses

One way to compensate for poor working memory is to break up or chunk information. This way, it takes up fewer “slots” in working memory. Give one or two, not a long string of, instructions, says Swanson.

Encourage children to ask for this kind of “information management.” Then they are less overwhelmed and have learned yet another skill—self-advocacy, says Matthew Cruger, PhD, neuropsychologist with the Learning and Diagnostics Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City.

Other ways to compensate? Use audiotapes or write things down, says Cruger. “If auditory working memory is weak, don't depend on it for important things.” It's far easier to write down homework in a planner and access it later. After the tenth time you've reminded your child to check his book bag, it may finally dawn on you that there is an easier way: Create a checklist with pictographs and put it on the outside of the bag for easy reference, he says. Rituals and routines are also helpful, says Cruger, who puts his cell phone in the same place each day to be sure he won't misplace it.

Reinforce what works

Of course, learning how to compensate doesn't mean simply letting working memory atrophy, says Cruger. Just as with building a muscle, using the skill will strengthen it, making it easier to use in the future.