Honing Children’s Working Memory

Children who under-achieve at school may have a poor working memory as opposed to low intelligence. A study carried out by researchers at the Université de Luxembourg found that working memory is strongly linked to reading and academic achievement, regardless of their socio-economic status. The findings are a wake-up call to the importance of honing the working memory, and of encouraging teachers to use methods that do not overburden the working memory of children who are struggling.

Why is working memory so important?

Working memory enables children to retain information long enough to use it to answer a maths problem or to follow instructions read at the beginning of an exam. Mental maths is the perfect instance of a context in which the working memory is important; thus, when adding up two numbers spoken by the teacher to the class, children need this skill in order to visualise the numbers before them, while they carry numbers over, borrow from the digit to the left, etc. Working memory also plays an important role in concentration, affecting one’s ability to excel at different subjects. Weak working memory skills can affect children throughout their academic life.

Early screening of working memory is vital

In the above-mentioned study, researchers noted that “Poor literacy, low academic achievement and living in poverty create a mutually reinforcing cycle. There is a chance to break this by early identification of children with working memory problems.” Their findings also indicate that most children identified by their teachers as “poor readers” actually had problems with their working memory. Early detection means that measures can be adopted to improve working memory from an early stage.

Honing the working memory

Ensuring children obtain enough sleep is key, since studies have shown that nights of wakefulness impair the working memory. A study published in January 2018 found that females are particularly affected by sleep deprivation, with researchers concluding that “particular attention should be paid to young women facing challenges in which they have to cope with both a high working memory load and a lack of sleep.” Other studies have shown that bilingual children develop a better working memory, which is a good reason to consider a second language for kids.

Small steps count

Yet another fascinating study showed that running barefoot is a better way to improve recall and cognitive performance than running with shoes on. Said researchers, “The little things often have the greatest impact. This research shows us that we can realize our cognitive potential and enjoy ourselves at the same time. If we take off our shoes and go for a run, we can finish smarter than when we started.” Researchers at the University of Basel, meanwhile, showed that green tea extract enhances the working memory, as does having a good intake of Omega-3 essential fatty acids. Mindfulness, the skill of keeping the mind ‘in the here and now’, can also help. Mindfulness can be acquired and sharpened through meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi.

The Dual-N-Back brain training method

Researchers at John Hopkins University found that the Dual-N-Back brain training method greatly improves the skills people need to excel at school. Dual-N-Back (which can be ‘played’ online for free) “seems to show the most consistent results and the most impact on performance and should be the one we focus on if we’re interested in improving cognition through training.” The game essentially challenges kids and adults to remember both visual and auditory clues.

A wealth of research has been carried out into how to hone the working memory. However, schools can also help by identifying possible working memory issues at an early stage and not overwhelming children with working memory tasks. Finally, both schools and parents can rely on the number of scientifically proven methods to hone this skill, which will stand children in good stead throughout their lifetime.


Jenn Dawson is a freelance writer and editor who has a passion for education and learning. When not working she loves dedicating as much time as possible to study, including her current work for hr Masters degree. She also loves to spend time with her young family, travel and swim.