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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   Oct 19, 2014

How working memory games can improve kids’ executive function in 5 minutes a day

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How working memory games can improve kids’ executive function in 5 minutes a day

By Angela Watson

Are there kids in your class that struggle with multi-step directions and need frequent reminders about what to do? Or students who lose their place in texts, struggle to copy information and take notes, and forget what they were just taught?

If so, there’s a strong possibility that the issue might be something that you haven’t yet considered–working memory.

What is working memory?

Working memory is the information you can consciously hold in your mind in any given moment. It is one aspect of executive function, a collection of the brain’s cognitive processes. The two other core executive functions are flexibility and self-control/self-regulation.

Having a strong working memory means you have the ability to retain fresh information long enough to do something with it. However, our working memory is limited by nature. This is why we find it so difficult to remember lengthy sentences and numbers with lots of digits, like phone numbers.

People with strong working memories find it easier to recall and manipulate information they hear without needing to write it down. For example, they can solve a math problem in their heads, remember driving directions they read several minutes earlier, and recall the names of each person in a group they’ve just met.

Why is working memory important?

Working memory has shown to be a better indicator of later student success than IQ scores, test scores, and even student attitude! A study by Monica Melby-Lervag and Charles Hulme also found that children under age 10 showed significantly larger benefits from verbal working memory training than older children (ages 11-18 years of age.) Working memory is something we need to address with PreK, kindergarten, and elementary-aged children.

Children with strong working memories can:

  • apply previously learned information to new situations
  • stay focused and on-task
  • reorganize their thoughts to accommodate new information
  • take better notes and copy information more accurately
  • follow complex and multi-step directions

Poor working memory is the cause of many common concerns teachers have about students’ behavior in class. Most of the time, we never make the connection that working memory is part of the problem. We don’t realize that when kids appear to be daydreaming and not attending to a task, it’s sometimes because their working memory is full. They tune out because their brains  simply cannot hold any additional information and they literally can’t follow along.

What makes working memory such a challenge for kids?

Very young children generally have a small working memory. This is why it’s best to give them one step directions and use simple vocabulary when addressing them. As kids grow older, their working memory increases. So, part of the challenges around working memory are simply developmental.

However, there are other factors that affect our working memory. Three of the main circumstances include:

  • When we are distracted
  • When we’re trying to hold too much information at one time
  • When we’re engaged in difficult tasks

Doesn’t that describe almost every moment of the school day for many kids? And once information is lost from working memory, it can’t be recalled, because it was never stored in long-term memory. This solves the mystery surrounding why you sometimes have to repeat yourself so many times to some students! They were unable to absorb the information you delivered because they were either distracted or it was too much for their capacity. The information slipped from their working memories with no chance of retrieval, unless you provide the information again.

Additionally, working memory (like all brain function) suffers when we are hungry, tired, overheated, severely cold, and under extreme stress. Since many of our students grapple with those issues on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that their working memory is so limited.

This issue is magnified for children in high-poverty environments. Stress in early childhood continues to impact working memory well into adulthood. According to one new study, living in poverty is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points! That’s because the brain is always preoccupied with trying to meet basic needs and has less mental energy available for processing other decisions, causing emotional self-regulation suffers and academic performance suffer.

Working Memory from LearningWorks For Kids on Vimeo.

Can working memory be trained?

Yes! In Japan, researchers conducted 10 minutes of working memory training with eight-year-old children every day for two months. The training involved simple tasks such as asking the children to recall the second number in a four-number sequence.

The result? IQ scores for eight-year olds increased 6% in the control group and 12% in the memory trained group, with the children with the lowest scores making the greatest gains. This same article cites similar (though slightly less dramatic) results with 6 and 7 year old children. Even adults who participated in memory training showed gains!

While the gains are quite stunning, the most remarkable thing about memory training is the short amount of time it takes to see a difference. Saliminen, Strobach, and Schubert confirmed in a 2012 study that building a strong working memory takes only 5 to 10 minutes of practice a day for 8 to 12 weeks. Wow!

What kind of games can kids play to build working memory?

When I first came across these studies, I immediately did a Google search to find working memory games for children. I was shocked to find that very few such resources exist. A few online “cognitive enhancement” programs existed but none specifically for working memory…and nothing designed specifically for classroom use. Many resources recommended playing recall games, but there was no ready-to-use system available.

I decided to do the research myself and create games that could be played in 5-10 minutes per day in PreK-6 classrooms. Using what I learned from articles and books on working memory, and paying special attention to the types of games children played in the research studies, I designed games that covered visual-spatial memory, auditory skills, letters and words, and also numbers.

The printable Working Memory Brain Games that I created include:

  • a teacher’s guide with a through, research-based explanation of how the games work
  • 15 specially-designed games on printable cards
  • 6 pages of fun, colorful, print-and-cut game materials
  • 2 optional work mats

If you don’t want to make your own working memory games, you can purchase mine for just $5. You can also download the free 15 page preview to learn more and see sample materials (click the large green “preview” button.)

How often should my students play working memory games?

My suggestion based on the research studies is for working memory games to be played for just 5-10 minutes each school day for one quarter of the school year. After nine weeks of gameplay, you may choose to continue the daily practice with one or two students who you think are still struggling or have made significant gains that you don’t want to lose. This could be a great warm-up activity in reading groups or other small group/differentiated instructional periods. Your students might also find it valuable to revisit the games periodically throughout the year.

I made these games available a few weeks ago and am already receiving emails from teachers saying they’re seeing improvements in students’ recall and direction-following abilities. I am so excited to hear more success stories around working memory training, and I hope you’ll give it try with any students you feel could benefit!

Have you noticed issues with students’ working memory in your classroom? I’d love to hear about your experiences and any helpful strategies you’ve tried for building working memory.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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    1. Hi, Theresa! I’m not aware of any other printable working memory games, so I can’t recommend anything similar for older children. There are some online games that might be useful. Check out the Learning Works for Kids website.

    2. Ellen Galinsky’s Mind In The Making (easy to read) research, examples, and some ideas on executive functions of the brain.

      1. Play games like “Simon” – it’s an electronic game where students have to spear patterns that get progressively harder. Or use a deck of cards & have them play concentration with someone.

  1. Angela,
    My child is 8 and is struggling severely wit reading. She had been diagnosed with reading fluency disability and borderline ADHD. Would your games help her also. It seems some of the things you mentioned sound just like her.

    1. get your child a vision exam with a DEVELOPMENTAL OPTOMETRIST. this is a different type of visual exam that checks 17 different vision functions. As a former teacher (33 years, master in reading and National Board Certification), and. Now a current vision therapist, I believe your child’s visual system is not working correctly. ONE part of this is visual memory! So While Wendy’s games will certainly help, it. Might not help with the other issues you mentioned. Check out Vision a Therapy online. Good luck!

  2. Thank you for the valuable information on the working memory! I will skype with my grandson tonight to get started.

  3. Hi there Angela, great name by the way!

    I’d love to get a copy of the resource you have made available. Could you please advise me how I could access this also?

    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Thank you

  4. Hi.
    Your product looks interesting. I was hoping to access the free download before buying the whole product, but the link led me straight to the full product. Is it too late to see a glimpse of the product?
    Thank you!

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