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Signs of a Poor Working Memory

In a previous post I discussed what working memory is and how it may affect people with some learning disabilities including dyspraxia. What are the signs that you or someone you know may have poor working memory? In this post I would like t talk about the signs that someone may have poor working memory.

It can be difficult to follow multi-step instructions. This is particularly true if instructions are difficult to follow verbally, but can be followed if they are written down. If  the problem was that the person cannot follow instructions then they wouldn’t be able to follow written instructions either. When we are given instructions verbally we must remember the instructions while at the same time trying to work out how to put them into practice.This requires working memory. However if the instructions are written down we don’t have to remember them. We can just read them one at a time and follow them in turn without having to remember the rest of the instructions. This happens to me a lot if I have to ask someone for directions. I don’t remember more than the first couple of instructions. However if the instructions are written down I can follow them. I also find this a problem when in class and my lecturer gives us verbal instructions for a task.

A child with poor working memory will often not complete tasks they are asked to do. They are often accused of not listening or being lazy or naughty. Before getting angry with the child think about how many steps there are in your request. If there are several you could try asking the child to do one or two steps at a time depending on the child’s age. If they then complete what they are asked to do there is a good chance they have poor working memory. There is no point asking them to listen more carefully or concentrate harder because their brain simply cannot do it. EG. You may ask your son to pick his clothes up, put them in the basket , then pick his toys up and put on his shoes . He may pick his clothes up and put them in the basket but leave his toys on the floor and not put his shoes on. He may even pick his clothes up and just stand there with them because he can’t remember what you said to do with them. When you are ready to go out , you may get annoyed because he doesn’t  have his shoes on when you asked him to put them on. He will often insist that you didn’t ask him to. He isn’t lying he really doesn’t remember you asking him to. It is far less frustrating for you both if you just ask him to pick his clothes up and put them in the basket. When he has done that you ask him to put his toys away and then after that ask him to put his shoes on.

In the above example you could give the child the instructions and then ask them to repeat them back to you. A child with poor working memory will have incomplete recall of the instructions. They may be able to tell you the first one or two instructions but not the rest of what you asked. If as an adult you often forget what you have been asked to do and have to re-clarify the instructions halfway through, you may have poor working memory.

Mental Maths and mental spelling can also be difficult with poor working memory. When we do a sum in our head we must picture and remember the numbers in our mind while trying to do the calculation. If we spell mentally we must picture the word in our mind while saying the letters. This particularly indicates poor working memory if the child can perform a maths or spelling task well on paper but struggles to do the same calculations in their head. If it was just a lack of maths or spelling ability then we would expect to experience the same difficulties on paper as we do mentally.

I often repeat instructions to myself out loud when completing a task. It isn’t because I am crazy. By saying the instructions I am giving myself a constant reminder of what I have to do. I often don’t realize I am doing it unless someone points it out to me. If someone does this frequently they may well have poor working memory.

Any activities that require both storage and processing will cause difficulties for people with poor working memory. If someone verbally gives you a telephone number and you have to mentally remember it while dialing it then you are using working memory.  Sometimes I can do this but most of the time I will get some of the numbers wrong. Giving directions is another example. To give someone directions we must picture in our mind the route they need to take while at the same time explaining the way to go ,which directions to turn and street names. I find this particularly frustrating as it makes me feel really stupid and people often look at me like I am. I have found that people with neuro- typical brains  have a lot of difficulty understanding why we can’t do this.

A child with working memory problems will often not contribute much or at all in group discussions. They may also not answer direct questions put to them. This is personally one of the most frustrating issues I have to deal with. So much so that as a child I would often burst into tears if asked a question.Getting angry at them won’t help. My personal experience with this is the more I feel pressured,the harder it is to think . My brain just freezes.The more I am pressured the more it freezes.

Other signs that someone has a poor working memory are:

  • they may need to reread text that they have just read
  • more time is needed to complete tasks and the task may need to be repeated several times in order to commit it to memory
  • how well they perform a task may be inconsistent. One day they may succeed,the next they struggle with it.
  • may not finish activities due to forgetting the instructions that were given to them
  • mind my wander during tasks that are not completely interesting
  • finding it difficult to take notes and listen to what someone is saying at the same time
  • have difficulty planning and organising the steps needed to complete a task.
  • having difficulty solving any type of problem that requires you to remember some information in your head while solving it
  • struggle with any situation that involves multi tasking

Remember working memory is not the same as long-term memory. Many people have good long-term memories but struggle with tasks involving working memory. It certainly isn’t an indication of intelligence. It is however a characteristic of several learning disorders including dyspraxia

Sharon Beaumont

I am a single mother of 4 who has lived with dyspraxia for several decades. My hope is that by sharing my experiences I can help to raise awareness of dyspraxia. I trained as an Education Assistant but found some areas of this to be a difficult career if you have dyspraxia. Currently I am an Information Technology Student and am trying to teach my self to speak French. I love travel, writing and anything French.

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