Updated: Sep 20
What is working memory, and how does it affect your child’s success? I was introduced to the term 'working memory' when my son was diagnosed with a one-second short-term memory. "What does that mean for his future?" I wondered. At the time, my knowledge of brain training was limited, but I did my best to help. Today, he is still working on it, and so am I. It's something we all can, and probably should, do.
I had the pleasure of speaking about memory and brain training in a recent interview with Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway, a renowned psychologist, and memory expert. Her groundbreaking research on working memory has provided profound insights into its impact on academic achievement. She has written several books on the topic, including a children’s series about memory superpowers for K-2 aged children. Her adolescent book for elementary and middle school kids provides great tips in the classroom that teachers could benefit from reading as well. Needless to say, Dr. Alloway is leading the way down memory lane.
Understanding the Link Between Working Memory and Academic Success
Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway's studies have highlighted a compelling connection between working memory and academic achievement. Working memory can be understood as our active memory, the space we use to process information in the moment. She likens it to a post-it note, stating, "So I like to use the image of a post-it note as a good visual for what working memory is. It's a small space. We use it at the moment. And once we're done with that conversation, our working memory kind of deactivates, if you will. We're not using it all the time." Working memory plays a crucial role in acquiring knowledge and developing new skills. Surprisingly, her research demonstrated that all components of working memory are present by the age of four, making it a critical factor in a child's early academic journey.
In her large-scale screening study, Dr. Alloway discovered that one in ten students experience working memory deficits, leading to below-average performance in language and math. Unfortunately, such deficits are often misdiagnosed, with students labeled as inattentive, lazy, or lacking effort. Dr. Alloway remarked, "It's not a lack of effort problem; it's a lack of space or capacity. That post-it note that we talked about isn't able to keep everything in place while the teacher is providing information on that lesson."
Recognizing these challenges and providing early interventions is crucial to prevent disengagement from the education system and foster a positive learning experience. Left unchecked, a child’s self-worth can become diminished. Dr. Alloway describes this as "learned helplessness," where they feel like, "why should I try? I'm going to fail." We've heard students echo those same statements, expressing that there's no point in trying, and they might as well not bother; thus, they disengage.
The Promise of Working Memory Plasticity
Traditionally, working memory was believed to be genetically fixed, leaving little room for improvement. However, Dr. Alloway's research challenges this notion by highlighting the remarkable plasticity of the developing brain. Environmental interventions and support can potentially enhance working memory capacity, opening new avenues for student success.
Moreover, Dr. Alloway's research revealed that working memory is culture fair, meaning it is relatively protected from external variables like socioeconomic background and cultural influences. This opens opportunities to optimize learning outcomes for all students, regardless of their backgrounds.
Empowering Students through Memory Superpowers
To address the challenges faced by children with learning difficulties, Dr. Alloway embarked on a creative journey. She authored a series of children's books, each focusing on a different learning need, including dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and anxiety. These books not only acknowledge the struggles faced by these children but also celebrate their unique strengths.
The stories follow characters who represent these learning needs and showcase their memory superpowers. This approach aims to create understanding, empathy, and acceptance among peers. Children reading these books gain insight into their classmates' experiences, breaking down barriers and fostering a more inclusive learning environment.
Memory Tips and Strategies for Young Minds
Beyond her children's superpower series, Dr. Alloway offers practical memory tips for children and adolescents in her publications. Through books like How Can I Remember All That? and Remember Ten with Explorer Ben, young learners can explore fun and engaging ways to boost their memory power. These memory-enhancing strategies empower children to take control of their learning and improve their working memory effectively. Here are a few tips:
Take your shoes off and go for a run.
Jump, squat, move: move around when learning.
Sleep on it: learn just before bedtime.
Doodle while the teacher is talking.
Smell: rosemary or peppermint oil.
The AWMA App: Assess and Enhance Working Memory
Taking her expertise to the digital realm, Dr. Alloway developed the AWMA (Alloway Working Memory Assessment) app. This app provides users with standardized scores for various aspects of working memory. From short-term memory to auditory and visual memory, individuals of all ages can assess and improve their working memory with this user-friendly tool.
Dr. Alloway describes the app as having standard scores:
It's all standardized from as young as five up to 70 years of age. It gives you a score on your memory, short term memory, as well as working memory, auditory, so you listen to sounds, you see how many you can remember, and visual memory. And again, all of this is science based. A lot of it is published research that you can see on my website as well, but started off as a collaboration with Pearson, and I wanted to make it more accessible. And then on the back end, there are 50 tips.
She later bought back her rights for the cognitive assessment to make it more accessible.
Empowering Education: Tips for Teachers and Parents
Alloway offers valuable advice for both teachers and parents to support their children's working memory development. She provides two types of strategies: habit-based and game-based.
For the game-based approach, she introduces fluency tasks, which are quick games that facilitate the connection between working memory and long-term memory. Teachers can incorporate these fluency games into classroom routines to bridge the gap between the two memory types. For example, challenging students to list as many animals as they can think of in 30 seconds can be immensely beneficial.
An example of a fluency task game for working memory is to, while on a car trip, say the colors of passing cars, take a break, and then say them backwards.
On the other hand, parents can create positive habits to enhance their children's working memory. They can incorporate memory-boosting foods like blueberries and dark chocolate into their diet, as these foods improve working memory functioning even up to 2 hours after eating them. Additionally, diffusing rosemary oil and chewing peppermint gum are beneficial activities while working on homework or studying, as they allow the brain to focus attention longer by preventing the breakdown of an important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. So, get some oils diffusing!
Conclusion: The Path to Success
Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway's research and resources are invigorating hope for educators, parents, and students. By recognizing the importance of working memory and implementing early interventions, we can unlock the full potential of every learner—superpowers, if you will!
Hassler, Lisa, and Tracy Packiam Alloway. “Click! Click! Working Memory and Memory Superpowers with Psychologist Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway.” The Brighter Side of Education Podcast, 13 July 2023, www.buzzsprout.com/2048018/13198659.
Packiam Alloway, Tracy, et al. “Verbal and Visuospatial Short-Term and Working Memory in Children: Are They Separable?” Child Development, vol. 77, no. 6, Nov. 2006, pp. 1698–1716, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00968.x.
Packiam Alloway, Tracy, and Ross G Alloway. “Investigating the Predictive Roles of Working Memory and IQ in Academic Attainment.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 106, no. 1, 2010, pp. 20–29, www.gwern.net/docs/dnb/2010-alloway.pdf, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2009.11.003.
Packiam Alloway, Tracy. I Can’t Remember All That! A Book for Kids with Working Memory Issues Including Those with ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and ASD. London, Uk ; Philadelphia, Pa, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.
Packiam Alloway, Tracy. “Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD.” Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, www.tracypackiam.com.