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Working Memory Disorder in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

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 or her short-term memory. The ability to remember the numbers while your child is adding them is his or her 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 your child wants to include in a sentence as he or she is writing it
  • Doing math without counting on his or her 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. Your child will be given about 3 numbers to memorize. After a few minutes, he or she 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 or she 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. Your child will be given 2 sentences and asked if each is true or false. After a few minutes, he or she 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 your child learn ways to improve his or her working memory. For example, they may teach your child 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 or she 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 or her teachers understand how to help your child learn. Your child may be able to record his or her classes so he or she can listen to the information several times later. The IEP may help your child build skills he or she will need after high school. Your child may be able to use other accommodations in college to help him or her continue to succeed. For example, your child may be able to take tests without being timed. This will give your child 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 or her to do. For example, you tell your child to hang up his or her jacket, gather his or her homework, and then set the table. Your child may forget some or all of the instructions. Have your child repeat the instructions to you before he or she starts. You may need to repeat the steps a few times before he or she 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 or her homework, help your child stay focused on his or her work. Do not allow your child to use the Internet unless it is part of an assignment or he or she needs information to complete the work.
  • Help your child rehearse information. Ask your child what he or she is doing as he or she completes a task that has several steps. Your child 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 or she can remember and use it. Have your child study or work on homework for short periods. Your child's 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 or she 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.

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Further information

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