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 is proven to be a better indicator of later student success than IQ scores, test scores, and even student attitude! The 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 that improve kids' executive functioning in 5 minutes per day for 9 weeks

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.

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.

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My post on discovering the 2×10 strategy has gotten over 200,000 page views in the past week and 35,000 shares on Facebook and incredibly, is still going strong. Literally thousands of teachers were just as impressed as me by the simplicity of the idea. We all know we need to build relationships with kids, but we hadn’t heard of a concrete strategy that makes the idea so simple and easy to implement and produces results immediately.

There were also hundreds of teachers who echoed the sentiments of this commenter:

I have always done this. I don’t think anyone really invented it, teachers just naturally do this with their students. At least the ones I work with.

It seems that there was a whole underground army of educators using the 2×10 in one form or another…but they weren’t talking about it. They were quietly going about their work doing amazing things for kids, and most of them were not telling anyone outside of maybe a few colleagues.

To them, it was no big deal. It was just what good teachers do.

But to other people…it was life-changing.

This is why it’s so important to be a connected educator. Share the stuff you are doing. Just because it’s obvious to YOU doesn’t mean it’s obvious to someone ELSE.

I’ve created this entire website, my books, my professional development sessions, and more around this principle of simply sharing what I’m doing as an educator. The ideas I write about are not earth-shattering. Most of them are just things that I do intuitively. But what’s obvious to me is not necessarily something other people might think to try…and what’s obvious to you won’t come naturally to everyone else, either.

Some of the things that resonate most with other teachers are the simplest things I’ve either thought up myself or tweaked from an existing teaching idea, like the 3 Before Me Rule or the Clean Desk Diagram. I’ve had literally hundreds of teachers thank me for sharing those ideas and use the exact same phrase: Why didn’t I think of that? And they totally could have! My ideas are stuff that any teacher can come up with. I’m not anything special here. I’m just sharing what has worked for me. And I think you should do the same.

Don’t discount your ideas: YOU have practices worth sharing!

There’s really nothing new under the sun, so don’t discount your ideas because they’re not revolutionary or 100% original. The best ideas are just small improvements on existing ideas, strategies, or products.

It breaks my heart to hear teachers say, “But I don’t have any ideas to share! I don’t really do anything creative or different!” Yes, you do. 

Anytime you’ve taken a simple strategy or idea and tweaked it so it works better for your classroom, you’ve created something worth sharing. And since most teachers use very few strategies straight from the teachers’ manual, it’s likely that you’ve put your own personal spin on almost everything you do. SHARE IT.

Don’t be discouraged when other people say, “Yeah, I already do that.” Because there are teachers out there who don’t already do it. Teachers need practical solutions and there’s no way they can possibly know them all. If you have solutions, share them. You never know who you might be helping.

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Overcoming the 3 biggest obstacles in relationship building with kids

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How to make time for relationship building, establish a rapport with students who don't like you, and more

So the 2×10 “miraculous” behavior management strategy really resonated with a lot of teachers. It’s a simple method for making the nebulous goal of relationship building much more concrete and achievable—simply spend 2 minutes a day for 10 consecutive days talking with a challenging student about anything she or he would like. Though many people indicated […]

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Share how your school is innovating and win 200K in prizes

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Britten Follett

Britten Follett, Director of Social Media and Web Content at Follett School Solutions, is here today to share information about this year’s Follett Challenge. It’s a great opportunity to share the good stuff that’s happening in your school and reward teachers and students for their hard work! Follett is a longtime supporter of The Cornerstone […]

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The 2×10 strategy: a miraculous solution for behavior issues?

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This is as close as it gets to a miracle solution for students

In the eleven years that I’ve been writing on this site, I don’t think I’ve ever, ever used the term “miracle” in relation to behavior management. But lately I’ve been hearing a lot of teachers talk about a strategy that might be as close as it gets. If you have a student for whom no other solutions […]

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If this article doesn

I’m not usually the type of person who tells other teachers what they MUST and MUST NOT do. This post is pushier than usual, because I’m more passionate about this topic than usual. Being a connected educator has transformed my teaching and added so much joy to my life that I want every discouraged and […]

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Unshakeable: Coming to 2 conferences this October

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Hear the Unshakeable presentation at 2 conferences this October

Have you ever had a message that you felt compelled to share with the world? Something that you felt passionately that EVERYONE needs to know, a burst of insight and new understanding that changed your life and now you want it to change the lives of all the people around you? I’m sure it’s no surprise […]

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A fun FREE app for National Fire Prevention Month

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Free app Sparky and the Case of the Missing Smoke Alarms

October was always my favorite month when teaching PreK: a trip to the pumpkin patch, a walk in the neighborhood to collect leaves and other signs of fall, and of course, a visit from the local fire station to show off the fire truck. Though the kids were having fun checking out the truck and […]

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Need support? Join “Encouraging Teachers” on Facebook!

September 23, 2014
Encouraging Teachers on Facebook: accepting new members until Oct. 8. Nearly 10,000 strong!

UPDATE OCTOBER 9th: Our fall enrollment period is now over. The group will re-open to new members for another two weeks in the spring. Want to be notified when the next enrollment period begins? Subscribe to the blog via RSS or email, or subscribe for occasional site updates and newsletters. Just over a year ago, I created the Encouraging […]

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A bright idea for building school morale through compliments

September 20, 2014
school morale

Most teachers don’t get nearly enough recognition and appreciation–so why not celebrate each other? Start by selecting the fastest and easiest method that faculty currently use to communicate with each other. If all staff members are required to access and use a social media account or learning management system(LMS), utilize that! Otherwise, a simple email […]

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My journey in educational publishing: how to write books for teachers

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writing and publishing books for teachers: video plus more resources for anyone interested in education book publishing

If you have been thinking about writing a book for teachers but have no idea how to begin or break into educational publishing, I’d love to share my story with you. Dr. Will Deyamport III interviewed me about educational publishing for his podcast, The Dr. Will Show. In the video below, you’ll hear me speak about: How […]

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Secrets of a teacher who loves her job: make a difference for kids in poverty

September 15, 2014
secrets of teachers who love their jobs: make a difference for kids in poverty

Today’s post is the latest from our Secrets of Teachers Who Love Their Jobs post series. Caitlin is here to to share her teaching journey with us and how she stays excited to go into the classroom each day. Thank you, Caitlin! 1. Tell us about where/what you teach, and how many years you’ve been in the […]

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8 ways teachers can talk less and get kids talking more

September 11, 2014
the person doing The talking is the person doing the learning!

On Twitter, I recently shared an excellent article by Justin Tarte called 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask Him/Herself. The first reflection question Justin recommends is: Who is doing a majority of the talking in your classroom? It’s the person who is doing the majority of the talking that tends to do the most learning, so what […]

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Win grants/scholarships with a free financial literacy game

September 8, 2014
Register your students in grades 9-12 for this free online financial literacy game to teach real life budgeting. Top scorers will win $3 million in classroom grants and student scholarships!

Disclosure: H&R Block has been a longtime supporter of The Cornerstone through their financial literacy initiatives. They have compensated me for helping them spread the word about these free resources for teachers and kids. The H&R Block Challenge is a completely FREE teen financial literacy program in the form of an online game. Through this game’s […]

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It’s September. Don’t worry, teaching gets better.

September 4, 2014
(Blog post) The best parts of teaching are yet to come! Don’t judge the entire school year by your first few weeks

If you absolutely hate the first few days (or even weeks) of school, you’re in good company. I was discussing this with some friends yesterday and we all agreed that the start of a new school year is the least rewarding time to be a teacher. You don’t know your kids yet, and they don’t […]

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A simpler way to teach writing: the one trait rubric

September 1, 2014
the one trait rubric system for teaching and grading writing

I used to spend hours grading students essays and felt extremely frustrated by the subjectiveness of my system. It was very difficult to think about all six traits of effective writing–ideas/content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions–at one time while grading. I’d often get sidetracked by mistakes in one area, such as spelling or […]

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When parents want to move their child to another classroom

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dealing with parents who want to transfer their child to another teacher's room

Having a parent ask to move a child to a different classroom can be a huge blow to a teacher’s confidence. And it’s an issue that nearly every educator will face at some point–if not at multiple points–in their career. Sometime parents don’t like the fact that you are forcing them to address issues they’ve tried to […]

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Intentionally blurring the lines between life and work

August 20, 2014
your work is part of your life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the separation between our personal and professional lives. The line for me is getting increasingly fuzzy each year, with my professional work spilling over and mixing into my “free time” more and more….and I like that. Teaching, blogging, speaking, consulting, and writing are not just my job. They’re […]

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Bright ideas: how Voxer changed my personal AND professional life

August 16, 2014
Vover has been lifechanging for me as a teacher

I would never have written an article like this a year ago when a friend first told me about Voxer. Friend: “Angela, you HAVE to get on Voxer.” Me, skeptical: “Why? I already have enough social media accounts.” Friend: “No, no, this is different. It’s like text messaging, only instead of typing, you just talk.” […]

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15 terrific resources for close reading

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close reading posters, anchor charts, mini-lessons, videos, and more

Snap Learning is a longtime partner and supporter of The Cornerstone, and they have sponsored this post. Though their products are not included in the roundup below as these resources are free, I encourage you to check out their Close Reading Portfolio or request a demo of the product here. They’re a fantastic company and I believe their interactive close reading exercises […]

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