Skip to main content

Working Memory Disorder in Children


What is a working memory disorder?

A working memory disorder means your child has trouble using information for a short time. Working memory is different from short-term memory. For example, your child has to add 2 numbers. The ability to remember the numbers is part of his short-term memory. The ability to remember the numbers while he is adding them is his working memory.

What are the signs and symptoms of a working memory disorder?

Your child may have trouble with the following:

  • Recalling information needed to answer a question
  • Following instructions that have several steps
  • Finishing tasks, especially if the task has several parts
  • Remembering the words he wants to include in a sentence as he is writing it
  • Doing math without counting on his fingers
  • Remembering which steps of a task have been completed and which still need to be done

How is a working memory disorder diagnosed?

  • A digit span test may be used to check your child's working memory with numbers. He will be given about 3 numbers to memorize. After a few minutes, he will be asked to repeat the numbers. A number will be added, and the test repeated until your child can no longer recall the numbers correctly. Then he will be asked to do the test again but repeat the numbers backward.
  • A reading span test may be used to check your child's verbal working memory. He will be given 2 sentences and asked if each is true or false. After a few minutes, he will be asked to recall the last word in each sentence.

How is a working memory disorder managed?

  • Learning experts may work with your child. The experts will help him learn ways to improve his working memory. For example, they may teach him to repeat information a few times. This is called rehearsal. Your child may rehearse information silently or out loud. They may teach your child how to break steps or information into smaller parts so he can focus on one at a time.
  • An individualized education program (IEP) may be used through high school graduation. The IEP identifies your child's learning needs and helps his teachers understand how to help him learn. He may be able to record his classes so he can listen to the information several times later. The IEP may help your child build skills he will need after high school. He may be able to use other accommodations in college to help him continue to succeed. For example, he may be able to take tests without being timed. This will give him more time to recall information and stay focused on the test.

What can I do to help support my child?

  • Always encourage your child. Each child has a different working memory capacity. Do not compare your child with another child who has a strong working memory. Be patient if your child forgets some or all of what you told him to do. For example, you tell him to hang up his jacket, gather his homework, and then set the table. He may forget some or all of the instructions. Have him repeat the instructions to you before he starts. You may need to repeat the steps a few times before he can remember.
  • Help your child reduce distractions. Create a quiet area for your child to work on homework or read. The area should not have a TV, radio, or electronic game device. If your child needs to use a computer for his homework, help him stay focused on his work. Do not allow him to use the Internet unless it is part of an assignment or he needs information to complete the work.
  • Help your child rehearse information. Ask him what he is doing as he completes a task that has several steps. He may be able to remember better by saying the steps out loud. Be patient, and repeat information if needed. Your child may need information several times before he can remember and use it. Have your child study or work on homework for short periods. His working memory may become overloaded by focusing too long or trying to remember large amounts of information.
  • Do not focus on grades. Praise improvement, such as homework he completed. It is okay to praise a good grade on a test or homework assignment, but do not make good grades the focus.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© Copyright IBM Corporation 2021 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or IBM Watson Health

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.