Working Memory: Put information in their World!

In ‘Building Blocks for School Success’ school learning is conceptualised as a wall of bricks with the bricks being specific skills a child masters before they reach the ‘apex’ of school based curriculum learning. Development starts at the foundation sensory processing and attention skills and builds to more complex sensorimotor processing, balance, motor and motor planning skills. Further ‘building’ leads to awareness, play and social behaviour. Organisation, personal independence, self regulation and abstract reasoning culminate in the complex task of school based learning. If each of these many skills is depicted as a block then mortar is needed to keep this wall upright. ‘Language and memory represent the mortar which not only holds the wall in place but gives strength and stability to the foundations of learning’.1

If a student presents with difficulty concentrating, is fidgety, can’t sit still and has difficulty receiving and understanding instructions is it sensory issues or anxiety/motivation or retention of information? There is no ideal sensory profile. Differences in sensory processing become a problem only when there is a mis-match between the person, the task and the environment.

truck load

Working memory is more easily quantified – size does matter! It can be defined as a system for temporary storage and manipulation of information. It involves an ability to keep this information active for a short period of time (usually seconds) and keeping it available for further processing. For most of us four to five things is about the maximum to manage. All stimuli we encounter is processed, delegated to the different parts of our brain to take action and working memory assists in blocking out un-necessary information, keeping us focused on what matters. Working memory is essential for daily functioning and is the key for academic and occupational performance. It is crucial for maths, reading comprehension, complex problem solving and test taking.

A child with working memory constraints may present as easily distracted, restless, day dreaming and have trouble waiting a turn. Difficulties may be seen in following instructions, the organisation/planning and starting of a multiple step task, and in academic performance. It is estimated in a class there may be three to four students who will have difficulty with working memory.

What is the best intervention?

Accurate assessment using a range of sensory and working memory tools is the first step. Intervention can be targeted in a range of areas:

Adapt and modify the environment. Put the information in the world not in their heads!! Evaluate the working memory demands of a task; then reduce the processing and working memory demands required. Use visual cues in the class room to assist.

Increase a skill level –use repetition and memory aids (rehearsal, categorisation, verbalisation and tactile cueing).

Teach strategies for coping – chunking! Break work into manageable pieces.

Alter strategies to get the best match between the child and their environment and create interventions to get the best participation of the child.

If needed, provide intensive training on working memory tasks to strengthen working memory capacity. Neuroplasticity makes memory training possible – use it and improve it!!

Janine Day (Occupational Therapist)



‘Building Blocks for School Success’ CHI.L.D Association, 2013 (1 Page 1).

Pearson Clinical Webinar ‘Exploring the relationship between sensory processing, attention and working memory’, May 2013, Melinda Cooper (Consultant Occupational Therapist) and Mimma Mason (Cogmed Manager).

Share the knowledge...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInGoogle+Pin on Pinterestshare on TumblrEmail to someoneShare on RedditDigg this