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In the film, “Inside Out”, every time the main character had an experience, a memory ball was created and sent to the memory store in her ‘brain’. Memories were made several times a day and when she needed them, they were retrieved from the memory ‘store’ and used as something to learn from, or as an emotional trigger. It was a good metaphor for the way our brains store memories, albeit a little bit simplistic. In reality, the way our brain stores information is still somewhat of a mystery; on one level we store millions of pieces of information every second of every day, but retrieving and using that information when we need it, that’s a different story. 

For many children, this is problematic, and they may appear to have ‘forgotten’ even the simplest of instructions only moments after hearing them, whilst confounding logic because they can easily recite the lyrics to their favourite songs. This is when you might begin to realise that they have some short-term memory problems which can severely impact on their ability to learn and use the information they are given. If unrecognised, they can be labelled as ‘inattentive’, ‘lazy’ or ‘badly behaved’ and they can fall behind their peers, eventually leading to under-achievements in secondary school and exams, or problems in other areas of life. 

Short-term memory problems are relatively common in childhood, and more so in conditions such as traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, autism, cognitive impairment and in people with learning disabilities. Everyone’s brain is different and learning HOW to remember things is something that some children may need our help with. 

What is memory?

Memory is defined as “the ability of an organism to record information about things or events with the facility of recalling them later at will.” There are three main stages of memory:

  • Encoding - information from the outside world is received by our senses through physical or chemical stimuli, and then processed and combined so it can be stored
  • Storage – the creation of a permanent record of the encoded information 
  • Retrieval – the recall of the stored information by first locating the information and then returning it to our consciousness for use

Problems with memory can occur at any of these stages. 

As well as three stages of memory, there are three forms of memory storage:

  • Sensory memory – this is not controlled consciously and usually lasts less than a second
  • Short-term or working memory – this type of memory normally last for less than a minute and most people can hold only 7 +/- 2 pieces of information here at once
  • Long-term memory – this is where we store enormous amounts of data for very long periods of time. There are two types of long-term memory: implicit memories (sensory or automatised behaviours), and explicit memories (pieces of information and memories of events/people/places)

If you think of working or short-term memory as a kind of notebook that the child is using ‘in the moment’, and long-term memory as a filing cabinet they can access when they need more information, you will get an idea of how memory works. 

For example, if you say to a child: “Pick up your pens/crayons, get some paper and let’s draw a cat”, then to be successful in the task, the child needs to store your instructions in their short-term memory and follow each instruction in turn. To remember what a cat is, however, they will need to access their long-term memory and recall the characteristics of a cat. Where children have short-term memory problems, they may not remember multiple instructions, so may pick up a pen, but not remember what to do with it. Working memory capacity varies between people and can easily be lost through distraction and/or overload, so problems here can stack up for young children. In the above example, the original instructions will now be ‘lost’ to the child, so they will need some other way of knowing what to do or they will not succeed in the drawing task. Their common response in this situation may be to ‘guess’ what to do or to give up entirely.

Interestingly, many children with short-term memory problems are often described as having ‘attentional’ issues rather than memory ones and adults often assume they are just not listening or paying attention so they don’t get the help they really need. If you suspect a child has memory issues, speak to the parents so they can get a referral or assessment. 

Strategies to help 

There are ways to help children with short-term memory problems. Some strategies may be more relevant than others depending on the child’s individual age and developmental stage. 

Ways to help include:

  • Go slowly, repeat instructions and break things down into small steps, making sure each one is complete before moving on
  • Give the child opportunities for repetition and model what you need done. One of the best ways to learn new information is to keep repeating it through practice. This can then make use of ‘procedural’ memory, a type of long-term memory that helps people remember how to do individual steps in a process
  • Point to words or  pick up items you are talking about to help focus attention
  • Create lists or visual reminders 
  • Take photos, use diagrams and label things making a scrapbook or visual schedule the child can refer to
  • Make learning as active for the child as possible and engage their sensory learning modes by doing things as physically as possible in a ‘hands-on’ fashion
  • Make use of different learning styles, for example by using songs and music, pictures rhymes and smells to help the child process and encode the information
  • Make learning new things into a game or use stories to impart information. You can even roleplay things too
  • Ask the child to repeat things back to you (if they are old enough)
  • Use acronyms and mnemonics – e.g. “Never Eat Shredded Wheat”, used to remember compass points (NESW)

Keep in mind that these short-term memory problems are ones that the child has no conscious control over. They are not ‘trying to be difficult’ or ‘just not listening’; but they do have a ‘hidden’ issue that they need help with. Remember too, that each child is different and no one strategy will work with every child. Best practice would suggest that you discover the strategies that work best for individual children so you can help them reach their full potential. 

References and more information

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