What is Working Memory and Why is it a Key Component of Executive Functioning?

 
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In a continuation of my previous articles on Executive Functioning and its three key components, this article will focus on the second process: Working Memory. My goal is to break down what the phrase “Working Memory” means and also give concrete examples, so that everyone understands why it is important, the role it plays in academics, and what to do if you have concerns about your child’s working memory.

Working memory (WM) is where the brain processes, holds, and manipulates information. We use our WM every day, including when we reorganize our to-do lists or when we try to turn instructions into action plans.

WM is divided into two types: verbal working memory and non-verbal working memory. VWM is activated when the brain is processing auditory information. NVWM, also known as visual-spatial memory, occurs when someone visualizes something and holds it in their ‘mind’s eye.’

VWM plays an important role in reading comprehension. For younger children, it is essential to the development of decoding skills for reading fluency. Additionally, VWM is needed for remembering instruction and content of instruction, comprehending complex sentences, and remembering what to say when called upon.

NVWM is required for math calculations (such as following signs of +, -, x, or ÷), keeping one’s place in a sentence or paragraph when reading, mentally manipulating images, and remembering patterns, images and sequences of events. We use NVWM to visualize the layouts – so when a teacher tells a student, “grab your notebook from the writing center and come to the carpet,” a student pulls from their visual memory where each of those spaces are in the classroom.


 
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Working memory (WM) is where the brain processes, holds, and manipulates information. We use our WM every day, including when we reorganize our to-do lists or when we try to turn instructions into action plans.


What is the difference between working memory and short-term memory?

Short-term memory is the ‘holding information’ part of WM, while WM includes the manipulation of that information. Additionally, WM requires the use of the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions occur, while short-term memory does not.

What impacts working memory?

Working memory capacity can be affected by deficits such as disease, genetics or age, but is also impacted by everyday factors such as fatigue, medication, and mood.

Working memory load is impacted by the difficulty of a task as well as the level of distraction from relevant and irrelevant stimuli. Therefore, the more difficult the task, and the more stimuli being attended to or actively ignored, the more demand there is on WM. In simple terms, capacity + load = performance.

What is the connection to Inhibitory Control?

In connection with my previous article on Inhibitory Control, the two processes of WM and IC support one another. In some cases, WM supports IC, such as when we are trying to achieve a goal: we have to hold the goal in our memory in order to know what is relevant versus what to inhibit. In other scenarios, IC supports WM, such as when we are reading: we have to inhibit irrelevant stimuli in order to hold in mind what the paragraph was about.   

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How does Working Memory develop and change?

WM capacity increases linearly with age during childhood; research has shown that even infants and young children can hold one to two things in mind over long periods of time. As discussed in the previous article, young children have less capability with Inhibitory Control, which reduces WM capacity.

How can I tell if my child has a poor working memory?

Parents can talk to their child’s teacher and ask if their child does things such as abandoning activities before completing them, looking like they’re daydreaming, failing to complete assignments, putting up their hand to answer questions but forgetting what they wanted to say, or forgetting how to continue an activity that’s already been started. A teacher will be able to help a parent understand if their child’s behavior is typical of students their same age or if it should be explored further.

If needed, a psychologist can determine if your child has deficits in WM using a variety of measures such as Digit Span (Backward) or Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning (WRAML).

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What is the impact of poor WM on functioning and learning?

Poor WM has been linked with learning disabilities in reading/spelling and math. Persons who have difficulty with WM may describe themselves as ‘absentminded’ or having trouble focusing. Children with ADHD often have difficulties with WM.

Verbal working memory is more likely to impact learning than visual-spatial working memory, as so much information is relayed verbally in school.

A common phrase in education is that until 3rd grade, students are ‘learning to read,’ but after that, they are ‘reading to learn.’ Students past 3rd grade who are still sounding out words while reading are relying heavily on their working memory. This puts a huge burden on the working memory system, as it is concentrating on interpreting individual words rather than putting that energy toward comprehension.

How to improve/increase Working Memory

Research is currently investigating whether WM can be specifically improved, and the results have been inconclusive. There are many apps available that claim they can improve WM; however, independent research has not yet shown that the positive effects of the apps generalize – meaning, they only work to improve one’s skills within games of the app, but not to real-life scenarios.

A better approach seems to be practicing meditation (which reduces mind-wandering) and using visual cues to help young children remember what they were just told. After a few months, the visual aid should no longer be needed, as the child will have internalized the reminder. An example of this is making a visual step-by-step chart for a bedtime routine.

In the classroom, teachers can reduce the working memory load by writing down directions in addition to providing them orally, increase repetition of information, encourage memory aids, build routines and familiarity.

 For further reading, check out Chicago Home Tutor’s articles on Mindfulness: A Primer on Why It’s Vitally Important for Our Kids and ADHD.


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Citations

Adams, E. J., Nguyen, A. T., & Cowan, N. (2018, July 5). Theories of Working Memory: Differences in Definition, Degree of Modularity, Role of Attention, and Purpose. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6105130/.

Cowan, N. (2016, March). Working Memory Maturation: Can We Get at the Essence of Cognitive Growth? Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4800832/.

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4084861/.

Gathercole, S. E. (n.d.). Working memory in the classroom. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from http://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-5/working-memory-classroom.

Gray, S., Green, S., Alt, M., Hogan, T. P., Kuo, T., Brinkley, S., & Cowan, N. (2017, February). The Structure of Working Memory in Young Children and Its Relation to Intelligence. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5157932/.

Rabinovici, G. D., Stephens, M. L., & Possin, K. L. (2015, June). Executive dysfunction. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4455841/.

Schreiber, J. E., Possin, K. L., Girard, J. M., & Rey-Casserly, C. (2014, January). Executive function in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: the NIH EXAMINER battery. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425416/.

Stuart, A. (n.d.). What is Working Memory and Why Does it Matter? Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://beechtreemedical.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/what-is-working-memory-and-why-does-it-matter-executive-function.pdf.

About the author:

Tulin S. Akin is a certified school psychologist who has been working as a tutor and Executive Function coach with Chicago Home Tutor for four years. Prior to CHT, she worked in public schools (elementary and high school) for eight years, after getting her specialist degree in school psychology for Illinois State University. Tulin works with students in all academic areas but has chosen to specialize in EFs after observing the affects of poorly functioning EF skills on student performance and long-term functioning. Her articles are based on reviews of current research literature, texts for practitioners, and hands-on supports for students through college age.

 
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