You’re not paying Attention: Working memory in Children and Functional Participation

As parents of young children, we are so easily blown away by the things that they say and do. The day she finally figures out the potty, the day she buttons her shirt for the first time, the day she recites the whole alphabet, or the day she says thank you without being prompted by you or another adult. These are just a handful of examples that highlight the potential growth of a young child.

On the other hand, parents are easily frustrated when our children do not do what they are told to or do not complete things in a timely manner. Some instances may include a child being told to go potty, a task that can be completed in less than 5 minutes. Instead, with consideration of the fact that the child is only 3 years old, she decides to take a few detours on the way: takes her socks off and on a few times, puts a sock on her sister’s hand, knocks a few DVDs off of the shelf, runs over to the table to finish that last bite of food from lunch, finds and fiddles with a pen that she has been looking for all day, throws herself on the floor and whines about how she never gets candy, and then slowly but surely she steps into the bathroom (which at this point could take an hour to just take the pull-up off).

How many times a day do parents reprimand their children for not paying attention? For families with small kiddos, the answer could be at least one thousand times. As children get older, their ability to attend to tasks, to situations, and to people matures so that they can participate in activities that matter to them. So, what about children who struggle with “paying attention” or with completing an indefinite number of tasks? Attention is influenced by several complex processes in the brain, one of which is called working memory. Working memory is a mental skill that allows a person to temporarily retain information that can be used in the moment. It is our ability to juggle thought processes in order to meet the demands of our environment: writing a book reports, cleaning up the playroom, drawing a picture, talking to a friend, etc.

Working memory retains a certain level of information in order for a child to be ready to use it immediately, such as following several steps of instruction from a parent. What happens when working memory does not work? According to the Child Mind Institute (2018), there are several childhood disorders that exhibit symptoms of limited working memory: learning disorders, ADHD, dyslexia, auditory processing disorders, and autism to name a few A child who has limited working memory may look something like the following scenario:

Dillon is a 6 year old boy who lives at home with his mother and his sister. His mother tells him that he needs to complete several tasks before he can go to a birthday party. His mother says, “Wash your face, change your pants, make your bed, and pick up all of the toys in your room. 10 minutes goes by, and his mother learns that Dillon did not complete anything according to her instructions. Instead, he placed his toys on the couch in the T.V. room and he took off his pants without putting a new pair on. He proudly told his mom that he washed his face though.
Sometimes, it is not as simple as telling our child that they are not paying attention. If working memory is impaired, then parents need to take some alternative steps to better guide their child. Examples include:

  • Breaking down instructions: Avoid bombarding your child with a long, wordy, verbal list of instructions. Instead break it down, step by step. At the beginning, maybe only give them one task to complete. As your child improves and consistently follows one-step instruction, give them two and so on and so forth.
  • Using a picture calendar: Working memory is part auditory (hearing) and part visual-spatial. If your child struggles with retaining verbal instruction, try visual cues such as picture calendars that the child can look at on a daily basis. Similarly to verbal instruction, do not overload the calendar. Provide pictures that represent a small number of tasks and then gradually increase the tasks as the child improves.
  • Exercising patience: One of the best things a parent can do is self-improve their capacity for patience. When we get impatient with children, they can see and feel it which only worsens their performance.
  • Consulting with a professional: If you are concerned about your child, specifically about their development and their ability to attend during the day, contact your pediatrician who can potentially refer you to some specialists (i.e. occupational therapy, psychiatry, behavior specialist, etc.).