Parenting Technique: Increase Your Child’s Working Memory

I con­tinu­ally train my ten-year-old son’s work­ing mem­ory, and urge par­ents of other young chil­dren to do like­wise. While I have suc­ceeded in at least tem­porar­ily im­prov­ing his work­ing mem­ory, I ac­cept that this change might not be per­ma­nent and could end a few months af­ter he stops train­ing. But I also be­lieve that while his work­ing mem­ory is boosted so too is his learn­ing ca­pac­ity.

I have a hor­rible work­ing mem­ory that greatly hin­dered my aca­demic achieve­ment. I was so bad at spel­ling that they stopped count­ing it against me in school. In tech­ni­cal classes I had trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing what vari­ables stood for. My son, in con­trast, has a fan­tas­tic mem­ory. He twice won his school’s spel­ling bee, and just re­cently I wrote twenty sym­bols (let­ters, num­bers, and shapes) in rows of five. After a few min­utes he mem­o­rized the sym­bols and then (with­out look­ing) re­peated them for­ward, back­wards, for­wards, and then by columns.

My son and I have been learn­ing differ­ent pro­gram­ming lan­guages through Codecademy. While I strug­gle to re­mem­ber the re­quired syn­tax of differ­ent lan­guages, he quickly gets this and can fo­cus on higher level un­der­stand­ing. When we do math learn­ing to­gether his strong work­ing mem­ory also lets him con­cen­trate on higher or­der is­sues then re­mem­ber­ing the de­tails of the prob­lem and the rele­vant for­mu­las.

You can eas­ily train a child’s work­ing mem­ory. It re­quires just a few min­utes of time a day, can be very low tech or done on a com­puter, can be op­ti­mized for your child to get him in flow, and eas­ily lends it­self to a re­ward sys­tem. Here is some of the train­ing we have done:

  • I write down a se­quence and have him re­peat it.

  • I say a se­quence and have him re­peat it.

  • He re­peats the se­quence back­wards.

  • He re­peats the se­quence with slight changes such as adding one to each num­ber and “sub­tract­ing” one from each let­ter.

  • He re­peats while do­ing some task like touch­ing his head ev­ery time he says an even num­ber and touch­ing his knee ev­ery time he says an odd one.

  • Be­fore re­peat­ing a mem­o­rized se­quence he must play re­peat af­ter me where I say a ran­dom string.

  • I draw a pic­ture and have him re­draw it.

  • He plays N-back games.

  • He does men­tal math re­quiring keep­ing track of num­bers (i.e. 42 times 37).

  • I as­sign nu­mer­i­cal val­ues to let­ters and ask him math op­er­a­tion ques­tions (i.e. A*B+C).

The key is to keep chang­ing how you train your kid so you have more hope of im­prov­ing gen­eral work­ing mem­ory rather than the very spe­cific task you are do­ing. So, for ex­am­ple, if you say a se­quence and have your kid re­peat it back to you, vary the speed at which you talk on differ­ent days and don’t just use one class of sym­bols in your ex­er­cises.