Working Memory in the Classroom

11 May 2016Teacher's Zone

Example of a child with poor working memory:

Nathan is a six-year old child in his second full-time year of school. He is working in the lowest ability groups in both reading and maths, and is struggling with many classroom activities. He often fails to follow instructions such as ‘Put your sheets on the green table, arrow cards in the packet, put your pencil away and come and sit on the carpet.’ Typically, he will complete the first part of the instruction and proceed no further. He also makes errors in activities that involve remembering even small amounts of information at the same time as processing other material. Often he loses his place in complex tasks, making errors such as skipping important steps or repeating them. Nathan’s teacher says that he has a short attention span, and is easily distracted.

Nathan is typical of hundreds of children with poor working memory skills.

Working memory can be thought of as the ability to hold and use a limited amount of information in our heads for a short amount of time. Working memory can help us overcome a particular problem or perform a task, like remembering a shopping list, using a phone number or following directions. It is important for learning and development in childhood.

A child with poor working memory may present with:

  • Normal social relationships with peers
  • Be reserved in group activities
  • Have poor academic progress in reading and maths
  • Have difficulties in following instructions
  • Problems with learning activities that require both storage and processing
  • Place-keeping difficulties
  • Appear to be inattentive , have short attention span and distractible

Situations that may have an impact on working memory may be when a pupil becomes distracted, or tries to hold too much information in their head, or engages in a very challenging task.

Ways to support a pupil with poor working memory:

  1. Recognise working memory failures.
  2. Monitor the child – be aware of the warning signs.
  3. Reduce working memory loads/ the amount of material to be remembered.
  4. Break down tasks and instructions into smaller components to minimise memory load.
  5. Encourage the child to request information when required- give them options of where they can go to get support- teacher, buddy system, a support work station
  6. Repeat important information.
  7. Use memory aids- visuals, number lines, multiplication grids, counters, etc.


Designed & developed by Hambly Freeman