My Child isn't Listening: How working memory could be to blame (Part I)

Last week I got a phone call from a concerned parent. Her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, was having trouble following directions in the classroom. Teachers were getting frustrated that Sophia wasn’t listening and able to follow the classroom routine. She was easily distracted and they had to give her directions multiple times before she would follow through.

This mom felt frustrated with the school because she knew deep down that her daughter wasn’t a bad child. She tried to prepare Sophia for school every morning by reminding her to listen to her teachers and do a good job. But every day after school the teachers reported the same problems.

When I see a child like Sophia, who isn’t able to keep up with the class, my first thought is a working memory deficit.

Children with working memory weakness usually have trouble with the following:

-Following directions

-Paying attention

-Answering questions

-Recalling details

-Having conversations

What is working memory?

Working memory is an executive functioning skill. And it’s one of the most important skills a child can have. Essentially it's the ability to  hold on to information long enough to do something with it.

The kids who are struggling with working memory are easy to spot. They’ll be the ones in the classroom who are on their own, playing with toys, while everyone else is lined up to go to the bathroom.

Here’s what typically happens with a child who has trouble with working memory.

The teacher gives a direction…. “Hang your coat up and then go sit on the rug for circle time.”

The child may hang their coat up but then forget the second direction ("go to the rug"). They might think for a second, now what am I supposed to do? But as they are glancing around they see that brand new puzzle they were playing with before recess. Instead of going to the rug they go straight to that puzzle and start playing.

In this scenario, it appears as if the child is deciding to go against the teacher’s directions and play instead of doing what they are told.

In reality, the child wasn't able to remember the expectation and then was distracted by something enticing.

Note: Preschoolers also have a hard time with impulse control, so it makes resisting the brand new puzzle that much harder.

You may also find that conversation skills are negatively affected as it can be challenging for a child to hold on to information long enough to formulate responses to a questions.

Testing your child’s working memory capabilities

 If you want to check whether your child is struggling with working memory, there are some simple tests you can try at home. The goal is to figure out how long they can hold relevant information in their mind.

In my practice, I typically start by giving directions with body parts.  Most children can follow simple commands like, “touch your head" and you can immediately evaluate their working memory. 

Then, I progress to combining two commands (e.g. “Touch your nose and then your ears”).

Next, I see if they can follow three commands (e.g. “Touch your nose, your ears and then your belly”).

Once I get a baseline of their skills then I move on to using toys, which are way more distracting.  Eventually I progress to coloring a sheet since these directions take a lot more time between the instructions and the actual follow through.

For example, if you tell a child to “color the dog blue and the horse brown” it takes a lot of time to find the crayons, color the dog, and then move on to the horse.

No one knows why working memory is adequate in some and inadequate in others. The truth it that everyone has differing strengths and weaknesses with their executive functioning skills.

Here’s the good news…

Once you figure out where a child’s skill levels are, then it’s easy to start targeted practice to improve working memory.

Interested in learning more strategies? In my next post (sign up to my mailing list here to make sure you’re first in line to get it!), I’ll share my five best tips for helping your child follow directions.

Over to you

Are you wondering if your child might have working memory issues? Leave a question in the comments below and I'll try my very best to answer it - I’d love to hear from you!


I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

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