Treating Clients with Working Memory Impairments

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Working memory (WM) refers to the ability to hold information in mind while using that information to complete a task. People who have difficulty with short term memory (STM) tasks, such as recalling a series of numbers or words, are very likely to have difficulty with tasks that tax WM.  Items in WM might be numbers, letters, speech sounds, tones, or complex patterns  (e.g., words, directions, phone numbers or formulas). "Working" with these items may require clicking an on-screen object, dialing a number, writing a sentence, completing an operation, etc.

WM deficits affect about 10% of the general population but they are much more common among children with language-literacy disorders. Some researcher have suggested that working memory problems are the root cause of the attention problems and behavioral symptoms in ADHD.  General education methods typically assume strong WM skills, so bright children with WM deficits can struggle in the classroom.

Dr. Torkel Klingberg compares WM problems to a computer without spam filters.  The inbox gets cluttered with information and can not process efficiently. He notes that research suggests that training programs that improve working memory don't expand WM capacity; rather, they reduce "spam" by updating the brain's spam filters.  Since "spam filtering" requires rapid recognition and categorization, it is naturally somewhat domain specific. Addressing WM in math many not improve WM in reading.  This conclusion is consistent with the research summary of Fletcher, et al. (2007)

Basing intervention on processing deficits, theories of brain function, vision, acoustic processing, perceptual skills, and so forth, with no attention to specific academic skills and content, leads to a morass of pseudoscientific interventions that do not result in improved outcomes....and are often simply deceptive in their appeal to parents and teachers. (p.273)

Within domains, certain teaching methods have the potential to support WM.  Examples of teaching methods that have potentially strong WM scaffolding include:

In addition, technology can assist people with WM deficits. Examples of technologies that can support WM include:

  • smart phones (e.g., calendar function; alarms; voice memos; online note functions like Evernote.com )
  • book readers (e.g., Learning Ally)
  • single click sentence checking software (e.g.,  GingerSoftware.com)
  • software for structured, adaptive and distributed practice (e.g., Lexercise.com)  

Finally, people with WM deficits often have to apply conscious vigilance ("spam filters") in tasks that others do effortlessly and unconsciously. This can be exhausting. Therefore, practice tasks for people with WM deficits should be focused and brief, with built-in, brief periods of rest.



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