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Supporting Executive Skills in Students: Working Memory and Flexibility

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.
It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
– Albert Einstein


How is it that we, as an American educational system, have come to value remembering and rote memorization to such an incredible degree, but rarely talk about memory at all? The process of remembering is complex, and it would seem that we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice by not speaking and teaching them about memory. We need to focus not only on what it is but also instruct students on strategies to help them maximize their memory.

When I talk with students and families about memory, I think it’s important to start with a brief discussion of different types of memory: Short-term memory, active-working memory, and long-term memory. Short-term memory refers to the ability to attend and hold on to information for a short period. Active-working relates to the cognitive process of holding and manipulating that information. Long-term refers to our ability to store and catalog information for later retrieval. While all three types of memory are incredibly important, when students struggle with working memory it can have a monumental impact on their school work. I like to think about active working memory as your cognitive workspace, which is much like many of our physical desks with a tremendous amount of individual variation. Some of us have vast conference tables that can hold a lot of information at our fingertips while we work, others have those tiny desks found in college auditoriums across the country that can barely hold a notebook and a coffee. Regardless of the space, we all have to find a way to efficiently work with what we have.

Research has not shown a lot of lasting benefit of interventions that focus on improving or increasing one’s working memory, so it’s critical to focus on finding ways to accommodate and maximize the capacity that we have. Active working memory is often described as simply following multi-step directions or doing math problems in your head, but it is more complicated than that. It is also about pulling out from long-term memory past experiences and prior knowledge to apply to a current situation or anticipate what may happen in the future. Young children develop this skill by taking cues from the environment about how to complete a task. They will watch their peers and teachers for cues about how to behave, how to complete a task, or how to respond. Whereas teenagers use active working memory when considering possible outcomes of behavior. For example – I want to go to my friend’s house, but I remember last time I asked to go before my homework was complete the answer was “no.” How and when should I ask mom to go to my friend’s house based on this? Teens are far better at being able to juggle multiple pieces of information, but not always at asking the question – what happened last time I did something similar?  

To support academics there are environmental cues to externalize information for students with active working memory weaknesses. For example, you can utilize technology for reminders, or visual cues in the school environment. One strategy Dr. Dawson shared during our Learning Differences Conference in the fall was to have students wear bracelets that correspond in color to different subjects to act as a visual cue to check for homework.  

Providing environmental supports for student success is important in active working memory as well as the area of flexibility. Dr. Dawson discussed the importance of flexibility as an executive skill, which she defined as the ability to adapt to change. Sometimes we say “roll with the punches” to express that not everything is predictable and you just have to go with it. Children who are inflexible can have a difficult time when schedules or plans change. We can try to make life as predictable as possible, but as we can all attest to, that is always easier said than done. When children struggle with flexibility, it’s essential to work to manage expectations. It’s often helpful to provide a preview of what’s coming and talk about places where a schedule or activity may shift. You could also discuss a range of times that something may happen rather than a specific time, or provide an overview of events that may occur rather than committing to one. This would also teach a child to anticipate the variation and then look at options for how to best respond if a change does come up. For unfamiliar situations, provide guidance ahead of time on possible obstacles/issues and ideas for how to handle those.  

Building executive function skills take time, practice, and a strong commitment on all sides, including the student. But the benefits of this work can span across one’s lifespan.  

Stay tuned for the next Noted: LD blog post where I will cover additional ways to support executive skills in students.


Jamie Williamson, Marburn Academy Head of School

Stephanie Royal, Marburn Academy Director of Outreach