Brain Power for Kids

Activity centres provide the stimulus needed to support a child’s expanding ability to remember. Professor Tracy Alloway elaborates.

In many ways, activity centres provide the stimulus needed to support a child’s expanding ability to remember. Professor Tracy Alloway, director of memory & learning in the lifespan at University of Stirling, UK tells us why it is important to develop your child’s working memory from a young age.

What is working memory?

Working memory is our ability to remember and manage information. We make mental scribbles of bits of information we need to remember. In addition to using it to remember information, we need
working memory to process or manage that information.

Working memory is critical for a variety of activities at school, from complex subjects such as reading comprehension, mental arithmetic and word problems, to simple tasks like copying from the board and navigating around school. Working memory measures our ability to learn, rather than what we have already learned.

A key difference between working memory and IQ is that working memory is relatively unaffected to environmental factors, such as the number of years spent in pre-school education and financial
background. Students are not disadvantaged in the classroom as each student has a similar
ability to learn. As educators, we need to unlock their potential.

At what stage of development does our working memory kick in?

The most dramatic growth is during childhood. These years are crucial as working memory increases more in the first 10 years than it does over the lifespan. These years are crucial as working memory increases more in the first 10 years than it does over the lifespan.

You will notice a steady increase in working memory right up to our twenties. At this point, working memory reaches a peak and plateaus. The average 25-year-old can successfully remember about five items.

As we get older, working memory declines to around three to four items. How does this relate to the classroom? The average 5-year-old can hold one item in mind (list of words, instructions, etc); a 7-year-old can remember two items, a 10-year-old can remember three items and a 14-year-old can remember four items.

How does working memory affect cognitive skills?

Research has shown that working memory—the ability to store and manipulate information—is the most important learning skill a child can have. It is the foundation of good grades and a successful life beyond the classroom.

Without working memory, students struggle, and with it they can dramatically improve their classroom performance. Working memory is the best predictor of academic attainment, it is even more important than IQ. Scientific studies, my own included, demonstrate that working memory predicts success in the classroom from language to math to history to art, regardless of the student’s IQ.

Working memory is not just crucial in early education: surveys of college students also reveal that their working memory, not their IQ, determines their success. The study also found that, as opposed to IQ, working memory is not linked to the parents’ level of education or socioeconomic (financial) background.

This means all children regardless of background or environmental influence can have the same opportunities to fulfill their potential if working memory is assessed and problems addressed where
necessary.

How can a child’s working memory be assessed?

At present, poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers, who often describe children with this problem as inattentive or unmotivated. However, there are standardized assessments that
are suitable for educators to use to screen their students for working memory problems.

For example, the Automated Working Memory Assessment (published by the Pearson Assessment) allows nonspecialist assessors such as classroom teachers to screen their students for significant
working memory problems quickly and effectively. KidzGrow also offers psychological assessments
to measure a child’s working memory.

Can improved working memory reduce learning difficulties in children?

Working memory impacts learning in students with disorders, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia (DCD), ADHD and Autistic Spectrum. I have worked with all these different groups and
consistently found that working memory underpins their academic performance.

I have also conducted clinical trials with students with learning difficulties, dyslexia, and highfunctioning autism, and found that Jungle Memory improves working memory, IQ scores, and
grades after training.


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