How working memory games can improve kids’ executive function in 5 minutes a day

Are there kids in your class that struggle with multi-step directions and need frequent reminders about what to do? Or students who lose their place in texts, struggle to copy information and take notes, and forget what they were just taught?

If so, there’s a strong possibility that the issue might be something that you haven’t yet considered–working memory.

What is working memory?

Working memory is the information you can consciously hold in your mind in any given moment. It is one aspect of executive function, a collection of the brain’s cognitive processes. The two other core executive functions are flexibility and self-control/self-regulation.

Having a strong working memory means you have the ability to retain fresh information long enough to do something with it. However, our working memory is limited by nature. This is why we find it so difficult to remember lengthy sentences and numbers with lots of digits, like phone numbers.

People with strong working memories find it easier to recall and manipulate information they hear without needing to write it down. For example, they can solve a math problem in their heads, remember driving directions they read several minutes earlier, and recall the names of each person in a group they’ve just met.

Why is working memory important?

Working memory has shown to be a better indicator of later student success than IQ scores, test scores, and even student attitude! A study by Monica Melby-Lervag and Charles Hulme also found that children under age 10 showed significantly larger benefits from verbal working memory training than older children (ages 11-18 years of age.) Working memory is something we need to address with PreK, kindergarten, and elementary-aged children.

Children with strong working memories can:

  • apply previously learned information to new situations
  • stay focused and on-task
  • reorganize their thoughts to accommodate new information
  • take better notes and copy information more accurately
  • follow complex and multi-step directions

Poor working memory is the cause of many common concerns teachers have about students’ behavior in class. Most of the time, we never make the connection that working memory is part of the problem. We don’t realize that when kids appear to be daydreaming and not attending to a task, it’s sometimes because their working memory is full. They tune out because their brains  simply cannot hold any additional information and they literally can’t follow along.

working memory games for kids: executive function practice

What makes working memory such a challenge for kids?

Very young children generally have a small working memory. This is why it’s best to give them one step directions and use simple vocabulary when addressing them. As kids grow older, their working memory increases. So, part of the challenges around working memory are simply developmental.

However, there are other factors that affect our working memory. Three of the main circumstances include:

  • When we are distracted
  • When we’re trying to hold too much information at one time
  • When we’re engaged in difficult tasks

Doesn’t that describe almost every moment of the school day for many kids? And once information is lost from working memory, it can’t be recalled, because it was never stored in long-term memory. This solves the mystery surrounding why you sometimes have to repeat yourself so many times to some students! They were unable to absorb the information you delivered because they were either distracted or it was too much for their capacity. The information slipped from their working memories with no chance of retrieval, unless you provide the information again.

Additionally, working memory (like all brain function) suffers when we are hungry, tired, overheated, severely cold, and under extreme stress. Since many of our students grapple with those issues on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that their working memory is so limited.

This issue is magnified for children in high-poverty environments. Stress in early childhood continues to impact working memory well into adulthood. According to one new study, living in poverty is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points! That’s because the brain is always preoccupied with trying to meet basic needs and has less mental energy available for processing other decisions, causing emotional self-regulation suffers and academic performance suffer.

Working Memory from LearningWorks For Kids on Vimeo.

Can working memory be trained?

Yes! In Japan, researchers conducted 10 minutes of working memory training with eight-year-old children every day for two months. The training involved simple tasks such as asking the children to recall the second number in a four-number sequence.

The result? IQ scores for eight-year olds increased 6% in the control group and 12% in the memory trained group, with the children with the lowest scores making the greatest gains. This same article cites similar (though slightly less dramatic) results with 6 and 7 year old children. Even adults who participated in memory training showed gains!

While the gains are quite stunning, the most remarkable thing about memory training is the short amount of time it takes to see a difference. Saliminen, Strobach, and Schubert confirmed in a 2012 study that building a strong working memory takes only 5 to 10 minutes of practice a day for 8 to 12 weeks. Wow!

What kind of games can kids play to build working memory?

When I first came across these studies, I immediately did a Google search to find working memory games for children. I was shocked to find that very few such resources exist. A few online “cognitive enhancement” programs existed but none specifically for working memory…and nothing designed specifically for classroom use. Many resources recommended playing recall games, but there was no ready-to-use system available.

Working Memory Brain Games for kids--improve kids' executive functioning in 5 minutes a day

I decided to do the research myself and create games that could be played in 5-10 minutes per day in PreK-6 classrooms. Using what I learned from articles and books on working memory, and paying special attention to the types of games children played in the research studies, I designed games that covered visual-spatial memory, auditory skills, letters and words, and also numbers.

The printable Working Memory Brain Games that I created include:

  • a teacher’s guide with a through, research-based explanation of how the games work
  • 15 specially-designed games on printable cards
  • 6 pages of fun, colorful, print-and-cut game materials
  • 2 optional work mats

If you don’t want to make your own working memory games, you can purchase mine for just $5. You can also download the free 15 page preview to learn more and see sample materials (click the large green “preview” button.)

How often should my students play working memory games?

My suggestion based on the research studies is for working memory games to be played for just 5-10 minutes each school day for one quarter of the school year. After nine weeks of gameplay, you may choose to continue the daily practice with one or two students who you think are still struggling or have made significant gains that you don’t want to lose. This could be a great warm-up activity in reading groups or other small group/differentiated instructional periods. Your students might also find it valuable to revisit the games periodically throughout the year.

I made these games available a few weeks ago and am already receiving emails from teachers saying they’re seeing improvements in students’ recall and direction-following abilities. I am so excited to hear more success stories around working memory training, and I hope you’ll give it try with any students you feel could benefit!

Have you noticed issues with students’ working memory in your classroom? I’d love to hear about your experiences and any helpful strategies you’ve tried for building working memory.

The following two tabs change content below.
Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 theresa October 26, 2014 at 9:26 pm

What do you suggest for older children?

Reply

2 Angela Watson November 2, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Hi, Theresa! I’m not aware of any other printable working memory games, so I can’t recommend anything similar for older children. There are some online games that might be useful. Check out the Learning Works for Kids website.

Reply

3 CP May 6, 2016 at 7:41 am

Ellen Galinsky’s Mind In The Making (easy to read) research, examples, and some ideas on executive functions of the brain.

Reply

4 Wendy Pittman December 4, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Angela,
My child is 8 and is struggling severely wit reading. She had been diagnosed with reading fluency disability and borderline ADHD. Would your games help her also. It seems some of the things you mentioned sound just like her.
Thanks
Wendy

Reply

5 Angela Watson December 19, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Hi, Wendy! I do believe that the working memory games would be helpful for students with special learning needs.

Reply

6 Laurie Kopp September 18, 2015 at 6:47 pm

get your child a vision exam with a DEVELOPMENTAL OPTOMETRIST. this is a different type of visual exam that checks 17 different vision functions. As a former teacher (33 years, master in reading and National Board Certification), and. Now a current vision therapist, I believe your child’s visual system is not working correctly. ONE part of this is visual memory! So While Wendy’s games will certainly help, it. Might not help with the other issues you mentioned. Check out Vision a Therapy online. Good luck!

Reply

7 Sandra May 20, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Thank you for the valuable information on the working memory! I will skype with my grandson tonight to get started.

Reply

8 Angela October 27, 2015 at 5:49 pm

Hi there Angela, great name by the way!

I’d love to get a copy of the resource you have made available. Could you please advise me how I could access this also?

Look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you

Reply

9 Angela Watson October 28, 2015 at 9:23 am

Hah! Hello from one Angela to another. The link to the product is in the post: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/15-Working-Memory-Brain-Games-Improve-executive-function-in-5-minutes-a-day-1446472. Hope that’s helpful!

Reply

10 Amy November 22, 2015 at 7:46 pm

Hi.
Your product looks interesting. I was hoping to access the free download before buying the whole product, but the link led me straight to the full product. Is it too late to see a glimpse of the product?
Thank you!

Reply

11 Angela Watson November 22, 2015 at 9:38 pm

Not at all! Just click the green “preview” button in my TpT store. :)

Reply

12 brandy February 10, 2016 at 11:03 pm

Where can I purchase your set of materials?

Reply

13 Angela Watson February 14, 2016 at 12:14 pm
14 Turker May 8, 2016 at 10:01 am

Hi there, this is a great site and I am thinking to buy your product, because I am so interested in working memory concept. Our little one is 2.5 years old, but I strongly believe memory education must start so early. Do you have suggestions for toddlers? What games can we play focusing working memory?
Thanks.

Reply

15 Angela Watson May 8, 2016 at 7:19 pm

I think these games could work with a preschooler in a home context. You’d just want to use the ones that are picture-based, and start with maybe 2 of them. Another idea is to play Memory/Concentration. I would wait for both games until your little one is at least 3, though.

Reply

16 Rosemary Slade June 3, 2016 at 3:50 pm

Turker,
Angela has some great points. A toddler who is age two should be able to do two commands…. for example pat her head and wave bye bye. So, you need to make sure your child can do that. Then, you pair the two commands together like this. say to your toddler: Pat head, wave bye bye. (THEN she does the commands). You don’t say …. pat your head! pat your head! Yay you did it! now wave bye bye! OK yay you did it! Do you see the difference? The first example is beginning to work on working memory, the second example does not address this. A child should be able to do one command for each year of age. A two year old – two commands. A three year old – three commands. Make a set of index cards with actions on them, teach her the actions and then randomly select two to see if she can do them.

Reply

17 Maria Lynn July 17, 2016 at 2:06 pm

What about teachers with 35 years experience; Masters + 30 hrs. (2nd grade, District Reading Teacher, Media Specialist, Bad Boy Program in Middle School — Short Term Memory problem due to auto accident in 2008. Any ideas? Thanks. I was trying to write down ideas but the site must not liked it and went away. Maria

Reply

18 Gail Casson October 22, 2016 at 8:36 am

I have been doing working memory exercises with students who need it in third grade in partners. We did some picture card recall, but the two activities they like best so far are repeating numbers in reverse order and copying sentences.
1. One student writes a series of digits (use only 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) and doesn’t show them to a partner. (Writing on a small dry erase white board is ideal.) The student SAYS the digits to the partner (ex. “3,8,4”) and the partner says them in reverse order (ex. “4,8,3”). I call these “exercising your brain” work. The first student says the sequence until the partner is successful in repeating it backwards. Then they switch roles.
2. Students generate sentences as part of a lesson on a topic I am teaching. I type the sentences as they watch on the Smart Board. Each student copies his/her sentence in a colored marker on a piece of large lined chart paper. The sentences are taped out in the hall. Students have a piece of paper and a pencil. The goal is to correctly write any sentence on their paper. They cannot take the pencil or paper out of the room. So they go out, memorize as much as they can, come in, write it down, go out, come in etc., until they complete a sentence. The scoring is as follows: Everyone starts with 100. I subtract a point for every error I tell them in advance. For grade 3 I subtract a point for missing capital letter, for missing end punctuation, and a point for each incorrectly spelled word. The students score between 100 and 95 typically. (I made up this game based on another teacher’s posted idea. She had kids copy single words written in a tic tac toe formation with the same hall/classroom set up.)

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: