What is Working Memory? A Teacher’s Guide

Every day, we get emails from teachers who are frustrated, confused, and at their wits’ end when it comes to helping their “low” students succeed. Many of these students have not been officially diagnosed with a learning disability and are instead placed into a broad, meaningless category based on standardized test scores. For this reason, many of them will never be able to compete with their peers. It’s not because they’re incapable of learning, and it certainly isn’t because they don’t have the right teachers. It’s because our educational system is failing to incorporate the latest scientific findings.
No wonder teachers are frustrated! Educational theory pays lip service to subjects like executive function, but it is well behind the times when compared to the current research on cognitive development and neuroplasticity.


What is Working Memory?

Chief among the executive functions needed for academic success is a good working memory. Working memory can be looked at as the scratch pad of the mind. Need to remember a set of directions? That’s working memory in action. It is the brain system responsible for the temporary storage of information.
Imagine trying to follow a recipe if you didn’t have a good working memory. You might have to go back to the cookbook again and again just to remember the first step! If you can put yourself in that situation, you’ll have an idea of how painful it can be for children with working memory dysfunction to get through their classroom assignments.
A child with ADHD doesn’t have to be bouncing off the walls. They don’t have to stare blankly out the window for hours on end. Inattention and hyperactivity are often part of the equation, but there is much more to it than that. Part of what makes it hard for ADHD students to succeed is a lack of strong working memory. Without it, a teacher’s instructions go in one ear and out the other. A passage on a test might be impossible to recall once the child gets to the questions.
Deficiencies in working memory can lead to problems with language comprehension, reasoning skills, and general learning. Trying to overcome these problems without addressing the root cause is a battle you’re destined to lose. Unfortunately, this is exactly what’s happening in almost every classroom in the country. You can use every learning strategy in the book, and it’s not going to be effective if the child can’t remember a set of instructions from one minute to the next.

Improving Executive Functions

So what, then? The child is just lost? Absolutely not. The research of Dr. Bruce Wexler and others in the field of neuroplasticity has conclusively shown that the brain can be trained just like a muscle. This isn’t just a metaphor; MRI studies have shown real, physical growth in areas of the brain called upon for greater-than-average tasks. This is the scientific underpinning for ACTIVATE™, a program that uses games, physical exercises, and NIH tests to address cognitive development. Put simply, it trains the brain just like a set of bench presses trains the pectorals.
With ACTIVATE™, students can improve their working memory, making it easier for them to remember instructions, retain information from a written passage, and obtain useful knowledge from a teacher’s lecture. Even students who may not specifically qualify as ADHD can benefit enormously from the improvement.

ACTIVATE™ in Action

In one case study at an elementary school in Bristol, Connecticut, ACTIVATE™ (formerly C8Kids) helped students double their working memory test scores. At another school in Brooklyn, NY, children who followed the ACTIVATE™ program experienced dramatic working memory gains. These gains ultimately brought the school from the bottom third to the top third of all NYC schools in the areas of reading and math proficiency.
We are standing on the precipice of a huge change in the way we address cognitive difficulties in children, but it’s going to take time. Unfortunately, by the time schools recognize how important specialized cognitive training is, another generation of students may be lost. If you’re a frustrated teacher who wants to introduce something new, talk to your administrators about giving ACTIVATE™ a try. Our case studies speak for themselves, our science is sound, and our program works.