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Working memory: A review for children’s mental health providers

By Jerrod Brown and Tracy Packiam Alloway October 1, 2018

Working memory is an essential cognitive skill that allows an individual to learn through the processing and manipulation of information. In other words, working memory is the process through which information is manipulated and then linked to other existing memories.

A wealth of research has investigated the capacity of working memory in children. Working memory is different from short-term memory, which simply stores pieces of information for a limited period of time. Working memory allows an individual to maintain information for use in intricate tasks such as higher-order thought, organization and planning, and language comprehension. Working memory also enables children to perform several important functions, including learning new information, comparing and contrasting different concepts, and making informed decisions.

Working memory is composed of three important tasks:

1) Maintaining new pieces of information for subsequent use

2) Filtering out information that is not relevant to the task at hand

3) Manipulating the relevant information to perform the given task (e.g., navigating to a destination)

Working memory capacity is dependent upon a number of abilities, including attention, behavioral control and cognitive flexibility. Attention is an individual’s ability to focus on a given task while blocking out distractions and other irrelevant information. Behavioral control is the ability to manage one’s impulses and emotions. Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to adapt to feedback and evolving needs.

Children affected by working memory deficits may experience a host of academic, behavioral and emotional issues. The deleterious impact of working memory deficits on academic achievement is apparent in students, from those entering preschool to young adults in college. These impairments may be even more pronounced among children who are affected by various problems related to mental health.

Deficits associated with working memory can negatively impact how a child navigates all areas of life, from academic performance to social interactions. As such, children’s mental health professionals should become familiar with working memory deficits and their impact on day-to-day functioning. Increased awareness and understanding of these problems will help professionals maximize the effectiveness of services provided to these children.

To that end, this article reviews multiple considerations related to working memory that all children’s mental health clinicians need to know.

 

Academic performance: In children, working memory has been linked to everything from academic performance to the symptoms of neurological, developmental and psychological disorders. Working memory is also important from kindergarten to the tertiary level, and is an excellent predictor of academic success, longitudinally.

Assessment: Working memory can be assessed in a reliable and valid manner in children as young as 3. Early identification of working memory deficits that are supported by appropriate interventions can lead to positive outcomes throughout the individual’s life span. A study of more than 3,000 students found that approximately 10 percent had working memory problems that led to learning difficulties in the classroom (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19467014). As such, early identification and intervention are key to long-term success.

Attention, behavioral and social problems: Several theories of cognitive processing posit that working memory plays an essential function in attention. In addition, deficits associated with working memory can sometimes contribute to problematic behaviors resulting in school-related and social consequences. This is especially the case when the child has not been properly assessed, treated and supported. One of the most consistent findings in research studies is that students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have poor working memory, particularly when they have to remember visual information, such as graphs or images.

Classroom difficulties: Working memory impairments often contribute to difficulties in the classroom. For example, students with working memory impairments may have trouble remembering instructions, completing complicated tasks, and comprehending and abiding by directions to solving a math problem or writing a sentence.

Creativity: Although relatively few studies have investigated the role of working memory in creativity, Larry Vandervert and colleagues have posited that working memory is one of the building blocks of creativity (see tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400410709336873). Their rationale hinges on the assumption that working memory serves as the “blackboard of the mind,” enabling an individual to manipulate and combine a variety of pieces of information and ideas in different ways. A study with college students reported that working memory was associated with one particular aspect of creativity — flexibility, which relates to breadth of thinking.

Environmental considerations: An important consideration for children with working memory deficits is limiting their exposure to environments and influences that could exacerbate such issues. These issues may include exposure to caregivers who abuse substances, neglect and maltreatment, and environments filled with chaos and chronic stress.

Importance of early identification: Working memory deficits in preschool may predict the likelihood of dropping out of high school. However, some research offers hope for the development of early interventions that strengthen working memory and the reduction of risk for dropping out of high school.

Information overload: Deficits in working memory can result in children experiencing information overload during learning-based activities. As a result, these children may act out behaviorally or withdraw socially. When misidentified or undertreated, these issues can negatively affect children’s emotional and behavioral health.

Intervention: Interventions that improve working memory hold the potential to positively benefit children’s classroom performance across a range of subjects (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20018296). These gains were maintained eight months later (see sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212003032). As such, children’s mental health providers play a vital role in the identification and treatment of working memory deficits.

Learning performance: Problems meeting the learning requirements of school may be attributed to deficits in working memory. Working memory predicts reading and math performance among students with learning disabilities. These associations remain even when controlling for the student’s intelligence and knowledge of language and math. These issues can persist across the child’s life span when such deficits have not been identified, treated and supported.

Learning styles: A prevalent argument in the education research community is that learning styles have a significant influence on how well students will do in school. The learning styles theory argues that individuals learn best in different ways. A popular framework for learning styles is one that separates Verbalizers from Visualizers, and Holistic thinkers from Analytical ones. A study with high schoolers found that students with good working memory excelled at all subjects, regardless of their learning style preference. One explanation is that although students may have a certain preference for acquiring knowledge, those with good working memory won’t be held back if information is not presented in their preferred learning style because they can adapt their learning style to different learning situations.

Note taking: The inability to remember several manageable pieces of information while performing another task such as taking notes on a lecture is an example of a working memory deficit. This can present challenges in group treatment settings in which participants are required to take notes while listening to a live lecture.

Problem-solving: Enhanced working memory capacity can result in improvements in the ability to learn and to solve problems. When working memory is impaired, decision-making and problem-solving abilities can be negatively affected. Treatment providers should consider screening clients for working memory impairments when decision-making and problem-solving abilities are impaired.

Theory of Mind: Theory of Mind (ToM) is the skill to appreciate that the conduct of others is motivated by their opinions, wishes and other mental states. The maturation of ToM has been linked to the cognitive development of both behavioral control and working memory. Working memory has also been linked to false belief and verbal deception in 6- and 7-year-olds.

Thought suppression: Research suggests that working memory could play an important role in the suppression of unwanted or obsessive thoughts. As such, helping children strengthen their working memory capacity should be considered when providing supports and services to individuals struggling to cope with such thoughts.

Trauma: Working memory deficits have been observed in individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In particular, common PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance, reliving trauma memories and avoidance of reminders of trauma may interfere with working memory processes.

Underidentification: Despite the previously mentioned consequences, working memory deficits often go unrecognized and untreated in children’s mental health settings. In some instances, professionals may misinterpret working memory impairments as issues with behavior, impulse control and attention. In a survey of classroom teachers, most knew what working memory was but were able to correctly identify only one or two classroom behaviors associated with working memory deficits.

Understand: Professionals should strive to understand the potential consequences associated with working memory deficits in children. Exploration of how working memory deficits may affect academic, emotional, social and interpersonal capacities is of significant importance. Children’s mental health treatment providers should consider incorporating working memory screening and intervention strategies into their clinical programming.

 

Conclusion

Deficits associated with working memory can have profound and diverse impacts on children. Mental health providers are likely to encounter children on a regular basis who are affected by working memory deficits. To minimize the consequences of working memory deficits, clinicians should become more familiar with the implications these problems have on screening and assessment, treatment and educational outcomes, and social functioning abilities. We highly recommend advanced training in working memory for professionals who provide children’s mental health services.

 

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Jerrod Brown is an assistant professor and director of the master’s degree program in human services with an emphasis in forensic behavioral health at Concordia University in Minnesota. He has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center in St. Paul for the past 15 years. He is the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies and editor-in-chief of Forensic Scholars Today and the Journal of Special Populations. For a complete list of references used in this article, contact him at Jerrod01234Brown@live.com.

 

Tracy Packiam Alloway is a TEDx speaker and an award-winning psychologist. Her research has contributed to scientific understanding of working memory, specifically in relation to education and learning needs. Her research has been featured on or by Good Morning America, Today, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Newsweek and others.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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