How you can build vital memory skills for your kids

Working memory in early childhood is a key to learning, reports Chelsea Harry, especially if you are at homeschooling.

Do you have a child who forgets what you just told them? Perhaps you asked them to get a book from their room and they started playing with a toy car instead?

It can be frustrating to repeat yourself again and again, but some children have difficulties with short-term memory, which can be better titled as working memory. Many neuroscientists claim that poor working memory leads to inattentive behaviours that will hinder academic progress in later school years. In fact, researchers now say that working memory, more so than IQ, can accurately predict your child’s academic success. Regardless of your child’s age, it is never too late to start supporting memory training.

The infant brain triples its weight in the first year of life. With this rapid change comes the development of thinking, reasoning and infantile memory. Memory is essential to cognitive functioning and (happily) the biggest contributor to the foundation of memory in your child will come from the dialogue and interactions they have with you. From the simplest, dribbly baby sounds, to the dialogue you have with them on their first day of kindy, valuable connections form, increasing intelligence and reasoning skills.

What can you do around the home to build these vital memory skills?

~Let them teach you

Re-telling and recounting stories and instructions should begin early and is fundamental to the acquisition of working memory and comprehension skills. “How did you build that tower out of blocks? Can you show me?”

Even if spoken words are not yet there to support their re-tell, the children are using working memory to recall how they performed an activity. They are applying their knowledge, further extending their memory bank.

For parents of school-aged children, don’t be happy with a single word answer when you ask them what happened at school. Challenge them to tell you five things you wouldn’t know they did today! In return, tell them five things you did today, so they have a model of how to recall meaningful events.

~Reinforce visual connections

When busy mornings mean that you have reached ‘headless chook’ status, don’t be tempted to bark instructions from the busy kitchen! Children often miss instructions when other distractions compete for their attention. Take a moment to stop and speak to your child face to face. Ask them to make their bed and brush their teeth, but have them close their eyes first and imagine what the bed will look like when it’s made. Suggest some ideas at first, and then ensure that you give time for them to respond. Then, ask them where they are going next. Where will the pillow be? How will the blanket look?  What will they be doing after they’ve finished brushing their teeth?

~Reward their effort

If your child remembers to follow instructions, have them come back and give you a high five so that you know they are done. Offering rewards such as being first to enjoy a certain food, or choosing something special for their lunchbox, will give them the compulsion to remember. The want to remember is half the battle. Children will remember more when you acknowledge their efforts, however small.

~Play memory games

There are many games that reinforce the need for memory (Uno, Memory and card games), but there are also small things you can do around the house. “Do you remember what mummy needed from the shop today?” Involve your children in your day—the things you need to remember, the person you need to call, the email you need to send. When you are travelling, ask them to tell you what letters are on the number plates of other cars. Then turn them into words or practise saying them backwards.

~Make reading part of every day

A mountain of evidence suggests the best readers are the best learners. Children who read develop crucial language and comprehension skills, necessary for survival in school and into adult life. The more they read, the better they become, and reading aloud to parents will help develop phonic awareness and vocabulary, and enhance their ability to express themselves. Unfortunately, computer games have too often taken the place of reading as a gap filler, instilling an aversion to reading at all too young an age.

Learn an instrument

Children who learn instruments have superior working memory. When a musician learns a new piece of musical information they see it, hear it, play it, feel it and in so doing, open a plethora of neural pathways in the brain. Researchers have found that compared with non-musicians, an instrumentalist’s brain develops a thickened pre-frontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for working memory. Imagine that—your musical child will actually build more grey matter! Whilst tuition means an investment of time and money, learning an instrument like the piano will increase a child’s capacity to remember and reproduce information, not to mention the social and emotional benefits.

~Break things down into smaller chunks

Ever wondered why our licence numbers, phone and credit card numbers have breaks in between the digits? It is because our brain finds it easier to remember things in smaller chunks. Teachers in schools will break down mathematical concepts into chunks (like building blocks) and build these together into a larger construct. Likewise, when you give instructions, begin with single step activities and build the list as your child becomes more capable. Stretching the children to remember more is essential.

~Above all, create connections

When short-term memories are connected to other memories, long-term connections are made. When your child meets family members, like a grandmother, it is important from the youngest age to encourage connection. “Say hello to Grandma, she is Daddy’s mum!” Seemingly big ideas can broaden their critical thinking skills creating children who are higher-order thinkers. Questions like “I wonder why it’s cloudy today?” remind a child that rain often follows clouds, thus using working memory and long-term memory concurrently.

Memory boosters are just one way of engaging with the development of your child’s executive functioning. As a child begins school, their working memory will be extended at an astounding rate. Some children excel, and others will struggle to make connections in their learning. It is important to stay in touch with your child’s teachers in order to understand what their learner-specific needs are and what you can do to support them at home. Remember, the best thing about memories is making them!

Chelsea Harry is a researcher, primary school teacher of 20 years, a classical musician, and a mother of three. She has a Masters degree in Education. She lives on the Sunshine Coast.