Poor working memory in the classroom

Children with a poor working memory make frequent errors in learning activities. These include forgetting lengthy instructions, place-keeping errors (e.g. missing out letters or words in a sentence), and failure to cope with simultaneous storage and processing demands (e.g. Alloway & Gathercole, 2006). In general, children are not able to meet the memory demands of many structured learning activities (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). Consequently, working memory can become overloaded and information that is needed for successful task completion is lost from working memory. If children frequently fail in learning activities their progress in acquiring complex knowledge and skills in areas such as literacy and mathematics will be slow and difficult. Thus, the majority of children with a poor working memory are slow to learn throughout childhood, and are at risk of poor academic attainment (e.g. Gathercole & Alloway, 2008; Gathercole & Pickering, 2000; Gathercole et al., 2004; Jarvis & Gathercole, 2003).

It is, however, important to note that children with a poor working memory are not often described by their teachers as having memory problems (e.g. Gathercole et al., 2006). Rather, they are often described as having attentional problems, or being likely to engage in “mind-wandering” (e.g. Kane, Brown, McVay & Silvia et al., 2007). This phenomenon has been referred to as ‘zoning out’, and is common is situations in which working memory is overloaded and therefore it is not possible to keep the information needed in mind. Children therefore fail to remember crucial information, and so they shift attention away from the task in hand. This often leads to concerns about inattentiveness. However, children with a poor working memory do not show attentional deficits if rated using the Conners’ Teacher Rating Scale (e.g. Alloway & Gathercole, 2006). The behavioural profile of children with poor working memory is also unlike disorders like ADHD.

Poor working memory is therefore difficult to recognise in the school classroom. However, Lucid Recall provides a reliable, valid, and efficient method for identifying children with a poor working memory. It can be administered in group settings, and no teacher or researcher input is required. Therefore teachers and researchers now have access to an easy and efficient tool to screen large numbers of children for working memory problems. This should make it easier for working memory difficulties to be identified.

After identifying that a child has a poor working memory, steps can then be taken to minimise the chance of a child failing on learning activities as a result of a poor working memory. There are two main approaches to intervention. These are discussed in detail in the following sections.