Working Memory & EF: Helpful Strategies

Keran Davison
Focus Program Director, WPSSFN

Executive function describes the control and regulation of mental processes involved in sorting, planning, and organizing information. Further, it describes the ability to respond flexibly, strategically, and appropriately to that information.

What does this have to do with bolstering working memory? Everything!

In this blog, we’ll expand on how WPS teachers enhance working memory through the development of executive function skills. Continue reading to learn how these processes work together and how to support your child at home.

What is Working Memory?

Working Memory is often explained metaphorically as a post-it note in the brain that holds small amounts of information in a readily accessible form.  It’s similar to the way small amounts of information can be taken down as notes on a real-life post-it note. These notes, based on incoming information such as a math problem, a lecture, a slide presentation, or a class discussion, can then support subsequent processes of working further with – processing – the information. 

Processing information can look like:
  • Planning
  • Comprehending
  • Reasoning
  • Problem Solving
In thinking of working memory as a place where incoming information is held so it can then be used and manipulated, the working memory definition becomes two-fold. It is not just simple retention of information – scribbled down notes that can be referred to later – but an ability to figure out the most effective way to engage in and work through a given academic task. 

Working Memory Examples 

Perhaps what is on the post-it are abstract ideas from a class literature discussion.  A student might need to use the ideas  to formulate an opinion for an upcoming essay. Or perhaps what is on the post-it is concrete data about a specific problem that needs to be evaluated in order to generate possible solutions. 

Without the ability to apply the right kinds of strategies for such academic processes, a student is likely to struggle to see their way through such tasks effectively. 

How to Improve Working Memory 

Research indicates that working memory capacity and capabilities expand over time until late childhood. Fully matured, working memory capacity is largely set at 3-5 individual items or chunks of information for a 10-15 second time span, without rehearsing the items. 

As such, many ask what can be done to increase working memory capacity. That is, can we expand how much and how long information can be held on that clipboard? 

Despite popular gamified apps that claim they do just that, the evidence is not there. Research shows working memory itself cannot be expanded.  Thus, it is not possible to boost the quantity of information a student can hold or the amount of time they can hold it. 

But what can be done is to support relevant executive control skills. Supporting working memory with explicit and appropriate instructional strategies can help to improve academic performance reliant on working memory capacity. 

At WPS, we think in terms of supporting working memory via developing related executive functioning skills.  Foremost, we explicitly teach strategies to improve the ability to attend to details, rehearse and chunk information, and independently attach meaning. Additionally, WPS teachers use approaches that lessen the cognitive load on the student.  

Ways to lessen cognitive load can include:
  • Establishing classroom routines, 
  • Providing gestures and visuals to support multi-step instructions, 
  • Engaging students in visualizing key ideas or vocabulary 
  • Anchoring new information to previously learned information 
Each of these techniques can help students manage processes and hold information as it comes in. 

How Does Executive Function Relate to Working Memory

Students with weak working memory tend to struggle with tasks such as: 
  • Following instructions that extend beyond one or two initial steps 
  • Developing an idea in writing 
  • Staying on track in a complex activity 
  • Solving multi step math problems 
  • Focusing on and being able to access information just seen or heard 
  • Attending to reading (both decoding and comprehension) 
  • Spelling
Because it is not possible to expand working memory storage, it becomes essential to improve the executive functioning skills needed for academic situations reliant on working memory capacity.  

Improving Executive Function can Improve Working Memory

WPS teachers design lessons with deliberate intention and thought towards supporting working memory. They accomplish this by lessening the cognitive load while also explicitly developing students' executive functioning skills. 

Supports include:
  • Keeping verbal instructions simple and concise 
  • Using word banks and graphic organizers 
  • Pairing visual and verbal information 
  • Using visual cues 
  • Building on background knowledge 
These supports enable the student with weak working memory to be better able to access information and apply strategies. The development of strategy use – a key component of supporting working memory capacity – is at the core of WPS classroom instruction. 

WPS teachers understand that developing such strategies is not as simple as knowing that strategies exist or choosing from a list of strategies and then applying them. Instead, they guide students to understand the strategy as well as when and why they would use it.

Our teachers provide explicit instruction in utilizing each strategy so students can not only see it in action, but also experience it themselves. WPS teachers engage learners in reflecting on their experience using the strategy. The goal is to help students more deeply understand how the strategy works and why it is actually helping them.

Through this explicit focus on executive skill development, it is our intention that WPS students ultimately learn the executive skills they need to support challenging cognitive areas such as working memory. 

How Can You Help Your Child at Home?

Improving working memory is about improving executive function. There are many approaches you can take at home to support your child in building their executive function skills while also improving task completion.

A key idea to remember is that a student with weak working memory is likely to become easily and quickly overwhelmed by too much information. As parents, it’s easy to overload on information giving laundry lists of instructions or expectations or recommendations often heavily auditory.

Developing Executive Function and Working Memory: Examples

When you give your child an instruction (please clean your room today), try to demonstrate and then practice visualizing what the clean room looks like. This will help them to retain the instruction and recall specifically how that clean room should look. They will be able to visualize clothes folded and put away, things picked up off the floor and put away etc.

Support your child in developing an after school routine by inviting them to identify the things they need to do after school (i.e., take off your shoes and put them on the shoe rack, place your lunch box in the dishwasher, hang your backpack, wash your hands, have a snack, prep your desk for homework time). Come up with a crazy phrase or mnemonic to easily remember the daily routine.

Engage with your child in playing board games that require memory (i.e., matching games, Go Fish, Battleship, etc.) and model rehearsal strategies. For example, demonstrate techniques you use to remember where a card is or what card you are looking for. You might model the internal narrative you have when evaluating what your best next move is.

Through such practices, you will help your child learn strategies they can use day to day. Most strategies apply to the classroom, as well as life in general. As a result, your child will steadily develop an understanding of when they can and should use such strategies.

Learn more about how Winston Prep can help your student get the most out of learning by viewing a location near you.

Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

WPS does not discriminate against applicants and students on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. The Winston Preparatory School provides programs and services and equal opportunity in the administration of its educational and admissions policies, financial aid programs, employment, and the selection of its governing board without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, or any status recognized by federal, state and local civil rights and non-discrimination laws.