To support the development of working memory, we must first understand what it is and how it functions. Working memory refers to our ability to recall and manipulate information in a short period of time. The most common example of this process is mental math--calculating the tip for a check at a restaurant, determining the appropriate percentage of the total bill without pen and paper. This example is a commonplace instance when we used this vital skill, but there are many others: remembering a phone number as we are dialling without writing it down, repeating directions to the local grocery store in an unfamiliar part of town, or calculating the amount of measurements necessary to double a recipe. Gathercole and Alloway (2007) liken this skill to a “mental jotting pad in situations when there is no other external record such as written notes or a calculator” (p. 5).
One of the challenges of working memory is the barriers which clutter the “jotting pad” on which we are working. Such barriers include distractions, trying to hold on to too much information, or engaging in tasks which require advanced mental processing. For casual tasks like remembering a grocery list, having a limited working memory might not seem like a big deal. However, as one of the executive function skills, working memory is essential for higher order thinking skills and academic success. Someone with poor working memory might have difficulty following multi-step directions, causing the child to stall out in following a teachers’ instructions; recalling information may be more difficult, because it was not stored in long-term memory accurately or appropriately; or impair one’s ability to establish positive social relationships, as remembering names or other important information is difficult. These signs and symptoms of poor working memory have a direct impact on a child’s ability to succeed, even in preschool. So what can we do as practitioners to support the development of this skill in our classroom?