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What Is Working Memory and Why Does It Matter?

curriculum-based-measurement-boy-works-at-deskRemember the day when someone rattled off a phone number while you just hoped against hope you'd recall the string of digits as you were dialing? That was working memory toiling away. With the advent of cell phones, you may no longer use it this way very often. But working memory still plays a central role in learning and our daily lives.

If working memory is weak, it can trip up just about anyone. But it really works against a child with learning disabilities (LD). You can take steps to help a child with weak working memory, whether or not LD is a part of the picture. Start by understanding what working memory is all about.

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory is your brain's Post-it note, says Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. “It makes all the difference to successful learning,” she says.

You can think of working memory as the active part of your memory system. It's like mental juggling, says H. Lee Swanson, PhD, distinguished professor of education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. “As information comes in, you're processing it at the same time as you store it,” he says. A child uses this skill when doing math calculations or listening to a story, for example. She has to hold onto the numbers while working with them. Or, she needs to remember the sequence of events and also think of what the story is about, says Swanson.

Brief by design, working memory involves a short-term use of memory and attention, adds Matthew Cruger, PhD, neuropsychologist with the Learning and Diagnostics Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “It is a set of skills that helps us keep information in mind while using that information to complete a task or execute a challenge,” he says. Working memory is like a foundation of the brain's executive function. This is a broad and deep group of mental processes. They allow you to do things like plan ahead, problem solve, organize and pay attention.1

“Working memory helps us stay involved in something longer and keep more things in mind while approaching a task,” says Cruger. “And, how can you plan ahead if you don't use working memory to keep your goal in mind, resist distractions and inhibit impulsive choices?”

But if you struggle with working memory, pieces of information may often evade your grasp like a quickly evaporating dream. You find yourself stripped of the very thing you need most to take action.

Types of Working Memory

“You can't overemphasize how often working memory is used in the classroom,” says Cruger. Children (and adults) use two main subtypes of working memory throughout the day. Both develop at a similar rate during childhood, and often reach their highest level in early adulthood.2

Verbal (auditory) working memory taps into the sound (phonological) system. Silently repeating that phone number while dialing makes use of this system. “And anytime kids are expected to follow a multi-step set of oral instructions, they are using these working memory skills,” says Cruger. If there's a weakness, however, they may not be able to keep the instructions in mind while working with them, he says. This is true even when they fully understand what to do. Other tasks that require use of this type of working memory are learning language and comprehension tasks.3