working memory
Working Memory

Gathercole is great! Working memory for children with SEND

Gathercole is great!

How working memory affects learning for children with SEND and what to do about it.

Working memory has become two words which most mainstream teachers will now recognise. Many articles and workshops explore working memory and it is often linked to cognitive load theory.  This is fine.  Much of the research and evidence however has come from studies with children and adults who have SEND and poor working memory.  What saddens me is how the information is often disseminated with the intention of getting more out of children who are already achieving in school, those if you like, with a good working memory. It tends to ignore the children who do not have good educational attainment linked to poor working memory, essentially those with SEND.  Inclusive teaching helps all children and harms none but I would really like mainstream teachers to understand how a poor working memory can have devastating effects on a child’s academic attainment rather than just tweaking teaching to enhance the majority of children who are already making progress.  I’m being controversial I know, but SEND children deserve great teaching too and their working memories are often not as good as their typically developing peers.  Furthermore, you have people with poor working memories to thank for the evidence you now have, so let’s ensure we use it to maximise the learning outcomes of the minority group, children with SEND not just the majority of typical learners. With simple adjustments, learners who struggle in the classroom can access learning and achieve more, this will alleviate stress for them, stress for teachers as they will have happy learners and stress for the parent and carers who will be witnessing their children thriving. Lecture over, here’s some useful tips! Firstly, you need this: Principles of the intervention outlined in the booklet: Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide It’s bloody brilliant and explains working memory, how it affects children and then describes a sequential intervention for teachers to use. Download it, it’s free and pin it to your wall.  If you are at capacity and exhausted, I’ve done a brief summary so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. *These notes are taken from Professor Gathercole’s slides – Susan Gathercole, Learning Works,*

Working memory is ….

  • the capacity to hold material in your mind and manipulate as necessary for a brief period
  • a mental workspace – often referred to as a jotting pad
  • limited in capacity (this capacity varies between individuals)

Working memory is developmental

  • ability increases steadily with age between 4 and 14 years
  • but there are significant differences between children of the same age (children with SEND likely to have less capacity than their typically developing peers)
  • it is closely associated with the ability to learn and academic attainment
  • it does not appear to be affected by experience such as prior education, socio economic status or ethnic group membership

Findings from a study by Gathercole (2004) where they assessed children on school entry within 6 weeks showed:

  • Working memory skills were strongly associated with baseline assessments of
    • reading
    • writing
    • mathematics
Therefore, working memory capacity was an excellent predictor of KS1 maths attainment and English levels in Yr. 2.

Characteristics of children with poor working memory:

  • Poor academic progress, particularly in reading and maths
  • May struggle with typical social circumstances such as large group play and circle time
  • Appear reserved in groups
  • Difficulties in following instructions
  • Problems combining processing with storage
  • Place-keeping difficulties
  • Short attention span and distractibility

Why is it a struggle for these children to learn?

  • Learning is a step-by-step process based on successes in individual learning activities.
  • Children with working memory impairments often fail in the classroom because the working memory loads are excessive for them.
  • Working memory failure leads to inattentive behaviour and often simply caused because the child forgets what s/he is doing. (when you walk into a room and forget what you came in for…imagine this in learning tasks).

Tests which can be used to assess for poor working memory

  • Working Memory Rating Scale (Alloway et al.)
  • WISC IV Working Memory Index (would need an educational psychologist for this test)
  • Working Memory Test Battery for Children
(Pickering & Gathercole)
  • Automated Working Memory Assessment (Alloway)
It’s also worth noting behaviours and creating a profile.

What can be done?

  • Attempt to prevent memory overload
  • Remember that children with poor working memory will become overloaded far quicker than their typical peers
  • Look out for warning signs
  • Monitor the child
  • Reduce information to be stored
  • Reduce difficulty of processing
  • Repeat important information (over and over again for some!)
  • Encourage the use of memory aids, visuals and prompts (but they must not have too much information or appear busy.  Some of the knowledge organisers are too much and information for these children will be overwhelming and like finding a needle in a haystack)
  • Help the child to use the strategies above, learn about how they learn (metacognition) and speak out.  If they’re confident, they should be able to learn to say ‘this is too much information for me, can you break it down? Or ‘Can you repeat that information but in chunks?’ or ‘Can you write the three main parts of your instructions in bullet points on my mini-whiteboard please?’ – They should be encouraged to do this and praised when they do.  The alternative is head in arms, work refusal or worse still behaviour issues.  It’s worth investing in these students. 
Giving children the tools to become independent whilst also helping them with the knowledge of why they sometimes struggle in the classroom is very empowering.

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