Use Your Noodle: Working Memory

Working Memory.  Sounds like “edu-speak,”, huh?  Maybe it could be referring to a portion of computer processes going on right now within this box of plastics and metals. Could it be the opposite of “Broken Memory?”

Simply stated, it refers to the actions your brain performs when you are “in the moment” and trying to recall and hold onto information to complete a task.  For example, you meet a new co-worker in a 9:00 am meeting.  At 9:15 when you try to introduce her to another employee, you are cursing your memory because you cannot, for the life of you, recall her name.  That is working (or maybe not) memory.

We use working memory for everything from dialing a phone number to knowing which exit to take on the freeway.  Working memory is where we pull up relevant information, analyze how to use it and put it to work.

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So how does this effect my preschooler?  Many of the difficulties that young children have fall within the boundaries of working memory.  Is your child “not listening” in class?  Are they seemingly unable to follow directions?  Do they frequently get distracted when they are supposed to be working on a task?  Do they find it difficult to stay on topic when they are part of a discussion?

Young children are growing in this area.  As Pre-kindergarten teachers, we see working memory developing on a continuum.    It is common for new four year olds to have difficulty following 3 step directions.   They have a hard time remembering each part of the direction, holding these in their head and then acting on each in order.

When remembering a string of steps is important, we try to help our students succeed by making our directions as succinct as possible.  We choose to use three or less keywords that represent tasks and routines the children have already had many experiences with.  For instance, when it is time to come inside a commonly overheard chant is, “Boots, coats, carpet!”  This short phrase replaces, “First take off your boots and put them on the tray, then hang up your coat, finally go back to the carpet, have a seat and put on your shoes.”  We have found that using less words makes the directions “stickier” and much easier to recall.

Working memory is visible in kid-writing, too.  Young children generally go through very distinct stages of writing.  When our Pre-K students get to the stage of writing where they begin using letters to represent sounds they hear in our language the first sound in each word is usually all they can hold onto.  With practice, they learn to repeat the word and listen for another sound, maybe a middle or an end.

There are times when the capacity to access working memory goes on the fritz.  Imagine Lucy is sitting in Morning Meeting, watching the teacher, remembering that she needs to look at the speaker, listen with her ears and keep her body safe.  She is holding all of these routines in her working memory while also processing, analyzing and sorting the information spoken aloud in the group.

While she is listening, Lucy thinks she hears one of her peers say her name.  She looks over and sees a couple of friends giggling.  Lucy isn’t sure what is going on, but thinks they must be laughing at her.  She is embarrassed and angry.  Lucy hollers across the room, “Quit laughing at me!”

In this example, Lucy knew that yelling out during Morning Meeting was not the best way to solve her problem, but was unable to pull up other options into her working memory once she began to feel stress.   This can be especially difficult for adults to understand and accept.  Often patience and acknowledging this is development in progress is the best approach.




Writing Naturally


This is how learning happens.  It begins with an idea and flows naturally into purposeful  practice.  The meaningful context makes the learning “sticky”.  Connections are made between emotions, previous experiences, practical applications,   The development of relationships between ideas in the brain foster even stronger connections.  We hold the strongest, most well trafficked connections for years, sometimes for  the rest of our lives.

The boy on the left decided that too many people wanted a turn with the stuffed alligator at rest time.  We understood his concern but were unsure if there really was a demand.  We suggested he take a poll.  He proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes engaged in sounding-out* each of the words for his question and polling the entire class.  He then analyzed the results and found that most of the children did, indeed, want a turn with the alligator.

Last year we had a similar problem with a stuffed dog.  This child remembered the solution from last year and decided to replicate it. (In fact it might have been his idea last year!)  He gathered all of the students’ names and created a list.  Each day, the next person on the list will have an opportunity to rest with the alligator.

The example above begins as learning frequently does, with a problem.  The child considered the problem and compared it with his previous experiences.  He recalled a strategy to “fix” the problem.  To solve his dilemma, he had to access memory of:

  • surveys
  • letter-sounds
  • print directions
  • letter-shapes
  • concepts of word (what constitutes a word? how can I stretch it out?)
  • who have I already asked and who is still waiting?
  • tally marks
  • some sight words (yes, no)
  • what do lists look like?
  • how to fit many items on a page
  • titles (his list has one)
  • counting concepts
  • motor skills required for writing
  • experiences from last school year

Each of these islands of skills and knowledge have been practiced many times and connected to multiple experiences.  Using them again for this project more firmly cements them into his collection of information about writing and problem solving.

finding relationships=strong connections=longer memory

*sounding-out : to slowly stretch out a word orally into it’s individual phonemes or sounds; used to discover the letter sounds within words; used to writing down “the sounds you hear” when you are beginning to read and write