How Does My Child’s Memory Help or Hurt Them as Students?

Two of my children have difficulty recalling information they have learned in the past. My youngest child is in 1st grade. She is a great student, but she cannot recall what day it is even if we remind her the day before. She forgets her lunchbox everywhere. Sometimes she leaves the house without shoes! I don’t worry about her though because what she lacks in working memory, she excels in attention to detail. Sure, she doesn’t remember where she puts her shoes, but she knows when I got new ones, whether or not I’m wearing makeup and what stores carry the t-shirt that her friends have. “Mom, do you know that my friend was wearing a flip sequence shirt from Gap?”. I hear this type of sentence a few times a day.

My oldest is in 5th grade and he is not a great student. He is an average student on a good day. Last year he was at risk of failing and he was placed in a remedial level this year. From what his father tells me, he was a phenomenal student when he was little. And to be frank, he is probably the one who will be the most successful. He can talk his way out of everything and has an innate ability to understand technology. And not just in the ways that all kids do…One time I left him working on a well known educational website and when I came to check on him, he had changed the code in the system. I am pretty sure he will be ok in life. But in school? That’s a different story

So what gives? How can these two children who are so smart be such poor students and what can I do to fix it?

There is a limit to how much information we can hold in our memories while we are simultaneously working on another task. For example, when I am cooking, I am performing numerous tasks at one time. I am cutting onions, paying attention to a pan, anticipating the time one thing takes to cook and deciding whether I can start cooking the quinoa as I am putting the salmon in the broiler. When someone comes to ask me something while I am cooking, or tells me a story, I simply cannot process what they are saying. I am in a zone where there is so much memory space being used in my brain at one time that I just can’t process anything else. When someone asks me to find something, I cannot access the part in my brain that remembers where everything is, while so much of it is being used to make sure dinner doesn’t burn!

Our children are built the same exact way. When they are in school and they are trying to solve a problem with all the energy they have and they get interrupted  say they are copying a question from the board and making sure

When working memory is not strong, a student will suffer in school. This was the learner that I was when I was in school. I had a very high IQ but was a very mediocre student. Even today, if I need to remember something, I have to write it down. I make lists, I have not one, but TWO calendars. And even still, I forget many things. if I don’t write it down, there is no way I will remember it.

There are tools you can use with children to help them improve working memory. These are a few things that have helped me and my children, and they’re also backed by educational and psychological research. I have tried these methods with many of the children I have taught. I am sure that at least one of them will have a great result.


When I am doing a Math word problem with my oldest, and trust me, these are the worst types of problems for him to understand, I always tell him to read the problem and think about it in his head. I tell him to imagine that he is seeing what the problem is telling him to do.

The other day we had a problem about a boy equally distributing some trophies on a shelf. Something like, Tommy has 36 trophies and he wants to put them on 6 of his shelves. How many trophies should go on each shelf? This problem was impossible for him to figure out. He was multiplying and adding and subtracting… Not once did it occur to him to divide. The problem is that he is worrying so much about what the words are saying, and at the same time trying to connect it to math. It’s like two of his memory banks are working simultaneously to solve something and it’s difficult.

One of the things I have asked him to do is to read the paragraph and forget the numbers, but as he is reading to picture what is happening in his head. This way he can see the problem in his head and then when he has figured out the problem he can access his other memory bank to solve it. Visualization is a great skill especially for kids who like to see problems and solve them. Where do we see this type of behavior? In video games! I hack his brain this way because he loves to play video games.

Turn them into Teachers:

Both my children with low working memory have very high verbal skills. They can sell ice to an Eskimo. When they don’t understand something or when I see them getting something wrong, I ask them to explain it to me. Being able to explain how to do something involves making sense of information and mentally filing it. When your child is doing their HW, have them explain how they get the answer. This helps them file away the information in a safe place which they can recall when taking a test.

Memory Games and Card Games:

We like to play memory games at home. There are lots of matching games that can help with memory. Another thing we love to do is take turns reading license plate numbers and then trying to say them backward. You can also do things like giving your child an article and asking them to circle as many sight words (of, the, and) they can in a minute. These drills help children exercise that part of their brain. The more they exercise it, the more they can access it.

What’s the next step?

Despite all the tools I give my kids, and I have given my students in the past, I worry. I worry about my kids because our education is not working to help kids that learn differently. There is still way too much whole group instruction and not so much differentiation. And of course, when I make these generalizations I do not include the amazing teachers I have met along the way who are amazing at what they do. It’s actually because of one of these teachers that my oldest has become a totally different child (for the better!).

I worry because school is the one and only responsibility my kids have, and if they fail it, it will harm their self-esteem. I don’t want my very detail oriented child to feel inferior or dumb because she can’t remember the days of the week. Because I know she will remember them if she has to decorate them with glitter, or if she is the calendar person every day. I don’t want my beautifully talented bonus son to feel inferior when he can probably out-code the IT person in his school. I don’t want him to miss out on all the good experiences school has to offer because he can’t remember the difference between commutative and associative properties and is going to fail his math test because of it. Because really, who uses that stuff anyway? Shoot, I can’t even remember that one without Googling it. 

I worry because they are brilliant in the capacities they have, but they don’t fit into the expectations of a lot of educators because their strengths are not deemed accurate in the expectations they have for the whole group. And because they don’t, they might get penalized for it. Penalized because their strengths are not “qualified” enough to make you a “good student”. Penalized for not having the strength that someone deems accurate for them when they really have a hard time possessing that said strength. It’s like being penalized in life for not knowing how to solve a quadratic equation, or because we haven’t found the answer to finding the cure for cancer.

Something needs to change. Not because my kids need to go to school and get a degree to be successful. Hey, I have a Masters Degree that didn’t make me any money! And I know quite a few millionaires who only went to high school.

Something needs to change because, as parents, we need to step up and help our kids, and as educators, we need to step up and see that kids are changing and we are going to have to keep up because they’re not going to adapt to us. They’re the leaders of the future. And as educators, we have to keep up to their growing needs and different ways of learning.

Something needs to change because when we put them in this box, we turn off the part of them that makes them who they are. We turn off that part of them that makes them strong in their own way. We tell them that strength isn’t good enough.

About the Author Mrs. Mady

A mom of 2 beautiful children, 2 amazing step-kids and I have a wonderful and amazing partner who is my number one fan. I am a teacher with 15 years of experience. I have a Masters Degree that helps me create the tools I need to tailor education for children who learn differently. I know the struggle of working full time and coming home exhausted to continue part 2 of your day. Your child’s success in school is tied to the tools you give them at home. Let me give you the keys you need to unlock success for your children at school.

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