“My child never remembers what I ask her to do! What’s going on?” – The importance of working memory

When parents bring their children in for an educational assessment, sometimes they report that they struggle with their child not doing as they are asked.

There could be any number of reason for this, ranging from behavioural concerns to relationship issues. Ruling out some clinical disorders, in the context of an educational assessment for a child who is struggling with their learning progress, this type of problem can sometimes be an indication of difficulties with working memory

What is working memory?

Working memory is the brain’s capacity to hold information for a short period of time in order to work with it. Consider it a short term mental workspace. For example, you are using your working memory when you are:

  • Listening to directions while driving or walking to find a particular location
  • Using a recipe to make a meal
  • Following a complex set of instructions
  • Completing a mathematical calculation

Working memory has limits, so doing multiple tasks or tasks with complicated steps can put a strain on this system. Sometimes children have less “space” to hold information. This means that adding too many things will mean that they cannot complete whatever task is being asked of them. Children with working memory problems may appear to become distracted halfway through a task, or might listen to a set of instructions but not know how to start because the first instruction has already been lost from memory.

Working memory at school

Children’s working memory is a vital part of being successful in school life, and is involved in things like:

  • Listening to teachers’ verbal instructions – being able to remember the instructions and complete all of the task
  • Mathematics – remembering the numbers involved, the steps or method, and keeping track of where they are up to in a calculation
  • Reading comprehension – decoding the words, while remembering the content of the text, and the order of the information
  • Writing – having a plan of what they want to write, while remembering the order of that information as well as how to spell each word, form letters, words and sentences.


Cognitive and educational assessment can investigate a child’s working memory in relation to their learning. There are a number of strategies that can be put in place to support working memory difficulties in the classroom and at home, so that children can progress and function more efficiently.

Please contact Attuned Psychology if you have any concerns about your child’s learning or memory, as an assessment may help clarify what your child’s needs are, which is a start to providing the right support for their success.

Rebecca Rossi

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