Working with children with poor working memory by Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

24th August 2017

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In my role as a nurture consultant, I regularly work with children who have a poor working memory. These are the children who appear unable to retain information, who fail to follow instructions, who find it hard to sit and take part in whole class activities, practitioners often comment ‘They just don’t listen to me’. Also as a parent, I have experienced this as my daughters have dyspraxia and dyslexia and regularly forget and find it hard to follow instructions.

For some children, a poor working memory may be a signal there are some wider difficulties for the child. Poor working memory can also occur when a child has experienced a developmental trauma. It is thought that around 10% of children in schools have poor working memory (Gathercole 2008). If you believe a child has a poor working memory, it is important to speak to your Senco and refer to agencies for further support. If you think the child has a developmental trauma, it is also worth reading Louise Bomber’s books, these are suitable for early years as well as schools, reference is below.

When you recognise that a child is struggling in this area, it is important to make adjustments to meet that child’s individual needs. Some useful examples of this are:

  • Break down your instructions, e.g., “You need to get your coat,” once this is done then say ‘now we are going outside”
  • A child may appear not to have listened to instructions, but it maybe that they have heard and then forgotten immediately. For this reason, it is important to repeat instructions calmly.
  • Where possible use visual images to remind a child what they are about to do, e.g., a picture of being outside, a picture of snack time, etc. I and the Ta’s I work with have these on a key fob which we can use to show the child.
  • Routine and repetition are helpful.
  • Use visual timetables, and continue to use these throughout the day.
  • Keep the expectation of sitting for carpet activities to a minimal, e.g., if the child can only manage 3 or 5 minutes, that this is fine. Sand timers can be a useful visual reminder for a child. Ideally then have an adult who can go with the child and play together.
  • If you are expecting the child to sit and join in with activities but they wriggle, fidget and can’t keep still, use fiddle toys e.g. tangles or a small weighted beanie toy.
  • Give additional individual warnings, just because you use a 5-minute tidy up time to warn for the whole class/ group, this does not necessarily ensure the child with poor memory will notice. Instead, have the key worker go up to the child and tell them individually – “in a few minutes it will be tidy up time.’
  • Make sure you give any instructions directly to the child, being down at their level, having eye contact. Giving out whole class instructions often does not work.

Further reading:

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-5/working-memory-classroom

Bomber, L –  Inside I’m hurting: practical strategies for supporting children with attachment difficulties in school

Article by Sonia Mainstone-Cotton. Visit her website here.

The author of Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Well-being’ published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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