Can I get a hands up from our teachers out there who looove them some silent classroom action?

1? 2? Every single teacher that has ever lived?

I think it’d be hard to find a single one of us who can deny they are partial to a little bit of quiet time in the classroom. The bad news is though, that for students with poor working memory, silent classrooms can be very unaccommodating.

We’ll get to the why-not of silent classrooms later.

First, it’s time to explore the concept of working memory; what it involves and how it relates to student learning and achievement.

The best way to Imagine it is as that mental post-it note we use to keep track of the things we need to do. 

Working memory image.png

In the classroom, good working memory looks like Jessica.

Teacher: “Now we have learned how to do long division you are going to complete this work sheet. I want you to take it to your desk, get a pencil, write your name and the date on the top of the sheet and try the first question on your own. When you have finished that, put your hands on your head.”

Jessica does everything as asked in the order it was requested, and then puts her hands on her head. 

Poor working memory in the classroom looks like Paul.

Teacher: “Ok everyone. It’s time to pack up. You need to put your pencils in the tin, the lids on the glue sticks and tuck your chairs in. Place your book open to the page on my marking table. Bring your news from your bag and find your spot on the carpet.”

Paul puts his pencil in the tin and the lid on his glue stick. He closes his book, leaves it on his desk and then heads to the carpet where he’s seen a few of his friends take their seats. 

It may look like Paul just didn’t listen, but this isn’t the first time he has struggled with completing a task - especially one with multiple steps. Then there are other things, like how during question time he frequently puts his hand up to share his answer but when called upon, he has completely forgotten what he was planning to say. Or how he fails to recall simple maths facts and reads repeatedly through parts of texts that other students finished minutes ago….

Then, while reflecting on the above, you recall those other times when Paul has been able to complete tasks where instructions are minimal.

Close your book and look at me now, Paul. 

Now we’ve finished reading Elmer, picture him in your mind. Now I want you to draw him for me. 

He is also pretty good with routines, like coming in from morning assembly, putting his lunch and recess in the correct tubs, bringing in his reading folder, taking his chair off the desk and sitting on the carpet.

And he is often able to work well with friends when they can provide him with simple instructions and reminders, or when he can repeat the task back to them. 

Paul is not naughty. Paul is not incapable. Paul just has poor working memory. 

So what exactly is working memory? 

Working memory is a vital part of executive functioning which allows us to complete day-to-day tasks that we come across both inside and outside of the classroom. Tasks like following instructions, organising, planning and waiting your turn. Simply put, working memory involves the ability to keep information active in your mind for a short period of time and use this information for further processing.

Working memory is crucial for academic success because it is intricately connected with our ability to focus, organise and problem solve. Therefore, it is not so hard to imagine how poor working memory can seriously affect learning areas like maths, reading comprehension and problem solving, and why students like Paul seem to fall behind. 

Is there a way I can help a student with poor working memory?

Yes! And you absolutely must. Simple steps like the following are great starters:

  • Break down information into smaller chunks and slow the activity down

  • Keep language simple - avoid jargon or fancy words

  •  Encourage your student to make connections between the new information and their own lives or personal experiences

  • Use multisensory strategies which can help the student keep information in mind long enough to use it

Remember how we mentioned silent classrooms at the beginning of the blog and how they’re not beneficial for students with poor working memory? Well talking through a concept, out loud, either with themselves or a friend is a fantastic way of helping students with poor working memory focus on and subsequently process new information. Encouraging the child to “teach” you or another peer, by simply repeating the information aloud is a super practical and easy step to strengthen working memory. Whisper phones are a great resource to have in your class or CRT bag of tricks, too. They allow a child with poor working memory to have this self-chat without necessarily distracting others. Plus they look pretty fun, too!  

Will a student with poor working memory ever “get better”?

Poor working memory isn’t something that can be cured, but it is something that teachers can significantly develop and improve. Being able to overcome the obstacles of poor working memory will lead to greater chances of academic success, and in turn, higher levels of self-confidence. On the other hand not addressing these issues early on can lead to more difficulties for the student later down the track, like their ability to reach their full academic potential, poor self-esteem and even keeping friendships. This is why understanding what working memory is and its relationship to student learning is so important. So, too, is knowing what signs to pay attention to in your students and the strategies that you can put in place to help students develop working memory. So the next time you see a child like Paul in your classroom, slow it down, break it up and encourage him to talk it through: with himself, a friend or you. Noise doesn’t always mean learning isn’t happening.

Learn more by taking our Working Memory PD course!

Want to discover more about working memory as well as a bunch of strategies you can implement to assist students with poor Working Memory in your classrooms?