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5. Working memory difficulties

Within a typical class, children have a wide range of working memory capacities. Children born preterm are at greater risk of having working memory difficulties compared to children born at term.

Children may appear as though they are not paying attention if their working memory is insufficient to cope with the demands of the task. Children with working memory difficulties may particularly struggle when there are lots of distractions or too much information for them to hold in mind.

Working memory difficulties can make lots of different activities challenging, as demonstrated in the case study opposite.

Jack is an 8 year old boy who I have taught for 6 months, he struggles in the classroom, especially with maths. He is generally well-behaved but he often appears to ignore instructions and seems to “zone out” during tasks. Sometimes I find this frustrating but mainly I'm just worried that he is not achieving his full potential.

Jack finds it particularly hard to follow a long list of spoken instructions. On one occasion I said to the class: “finish the question you are working on, stick the worksheet into your book, then hand your book in and get ready for lunch”. By the time that Jack had finished the question he was working on, he couldn’t remember the rest of the instructions and ended up asking a friend for help. Jack often misses words or sections out of sentences because he loses his place when writing, so his written work can be confusing. When he is reading, Jack finds it difficult to follow the storyline, he has to go back to re-read sections to answer questions about the text. This can take Jack a long time because he can’t always remember where the relevant sections were.

Jack finds maths a particular challenge. He struggles to learn simple number facts and still relies on using his fingers to solve basic addition and subtraction problems. Jack has been taught how to decompose sums into smaller parts to work them out, but he can’t keep the interim solutions in mind long enough to complete the sum.

When Jack is unable to complete a task he gives up easily and sits and waits for the next instruction. This means that Jack regularly leaves tasks unfinished. I now know that all of these behaviours are typical of a child with working memory difficulties. With the right strategies to reduce the working memory demands in the classroom, I'm sure Jack will make greater progress.