How to help kids focus and stick to a plan

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© 2017 – 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Working memory (or “WM”) is the system we use to keep information immediately available in our thoughts. We use working memory when we perform calculations in our heads, track the meaning of a conversation, and remember what we’re supposed to do next.

As you can imagine, WM skills are crucial for social and academic success. And having poor WM skills? It makes everything more difficult: Following directions. Learning to read. Getting ahead in school.

So what can we do to improve working memory performance in children? What can we do to help kids focus, concentrate, and stick to a plan?

For more than a decade, researchers tested computer-based memory games to see if intense, repetitive practice could boost children’s WM skills. And the results?

Disappointing.

Players learned to perform better on very similar, computer-based memory tasks. But the improvements didn’t seem to generalize to working memory challenges in the real world. After training, kids experience little or no improvement in academic performance (Sala and Gobet 2017; Shiphead et al 2012).

That was a blow to the education world. It would have been wonderful to remedy a child’s poor WM skills with just a few weeks of computer games!

But this disappointment doesn’t leave us helpless. There is still a lot we can do to help children improve WM performance.

In a nutshell? We can support the development of working memory skills by

  • understanding what environmental factors sabotage a child’s ability to concentrate;
  • helping kids cope with worries, threats, and bad moods;
  • breaking down complex tasks, and providing kids with friendly reminders when they go off track;
  • allowing kids downtime, including exercise and outdoor play;
  • encouraging adequate sleep;
  • teaching kids effective strategies for remembering facts and staying focused;
  • being responsive when kids show signs of depression; and
  • fueling children’s curiosity, and supporting their efforts to learn new facts.

For a detailed discussion of these ideas, see the tips below.

1. Wish your child was more focused? Review the science of working memory, so you can set realistic expectations.

Children — especially young children — have smaller working memory capacities than adults do. So they’re more easily distracted, more easily derailed. And some kids struggle more than others.

These failures don’t mean that a child is willfully disobedient or disrespectful, and they don’t mean that a child isn’t intelligent. But we can sometimes make these mistaken assumptions — simply because we don’t really what working memory is, and how it functions.

For a quick overview, see my article, “Working memory in children: What every parent and teacher needs to know.”

2. Understand how everyday distractions affect working memory performance.

We don’t use WM in a vacuum. There is always something going
on in the background, and that background affects us.  Internal sensations and environmental
distractions compete for our attention, and we use some of our working memory
resources to monitor this stream of information. 

This may explain why people experience dips in WM
performance when they are uncomfortable, ill, or in pain (Smith et al 2012;
Hood et al 2013; Sellaro et al 2015).

People also experience temporary deficits when they detect
an unpleasant odor, or notice another person’s direct gaze (Martin and Chaudry
2014; Wang and Apperly 2017).

Even something as simple as walking across a crossing a
threshold — into a new room — can make you forget your purpose. Why did I
come here? Was I going to fetch something? Or close a window? The change of
scene seems to wipe out the information we were trying to keep in our
consciousness. The temporary contents of our mental workspace are lost (Horner
et al 2016).

Such are the findings of experiments on adults. What must it be like for young children? Their brains haven’t yet developed the attention skills of older people. It’s harder for them to filter out irrelevancies, and focus.

So we need to be sensitive to all the distractions that children face. If we want kids to perform demanding WM tasks, we need to keep these distractions to a minimum, and make allowances when kids are feeling tired, uncomfortable, or ill.

3. Tame those worries.

When we worry, we use up precious working memory. It’s as if
information related to our worries creeps into our limited mental workspace,
leaving less room for us to think about other things.

The effects are more pronounced if you are particularly
prone to worrying, or suffer from an anxiety condition (Sari 2017; Stout et al
2015; Vytal et al 2016), and even young children are not immune.

Anxiety symptoms have been linked with poorer WM performance
in preschoolers (Visu-Petra et al 2014).

Moreover, individuals have anxieties that affect their
working memory for specific tasks, like solving mathematical problems (Shi and
Liu 2016). In fact, poor WM performance can itself be a trigger for worries,
creating a snowball effect (Tresize and Reeve 2016).

Can we improve WM performance by treating our anxieties?
Research supports the idea.

One useful technique is to write candidly about your worries
and anxieties, and explore the reasons for them.

The therapeutic effects of
this approach, called “expressive writing,” has been shown to improve WM capacity — sometimes for weeks afterward (Klein and Boals 2001;
Yogo and Fujihara 2008; Park et al 2014). And it can lead to higher scores on
academic exams (Ramirez and Beilock 2011).

Another approach is to train your mind to resist intrusive,
distressing thoughts.

This is one of the goals of mindfulness meditation, a
traditional Buddhist practice. Research suggests that mindfulness meditation can
reduce anxiety (Goyal et al 2014), and a recent study of middle school students
hints at working memory benefits as well (Quach et al 2016).

What about anxiety in very young children? Kids too young to try
expressive writing, or enroll in a middle school meditation course?  

Warm, responsive parenting is always helpful, and so is
“emotion coaching” — teaching children about their emotions through sensitive
conversations and problem-solving sessions.

But it’s important to recognize
that some children will need more support than others — more reassurance, and
more help learning strategies that build confidence. And we should watch out
for common mistakes that parents make.

When we are dismissive or critical of children’s anxieties,
kids get the message that we’re unsupportive.

When we are overprotective,
children get the message that their anxieties are justified.

Either way, kids
don’t get the coaching they need to build skills and overcome with fears (Hurrel
et al 2017).

For tips on handling your child’s emotions, see my article about emotion coaching. And if you think your child suffers from serious anxiety problems?

Discuss your concerns with your medical provider, and ask about programs for
improving symptoms.

Researchers have developed a number of programs for parents
struggling with anxious children (e.g., Fox et al 2012; Chronis-Tuscano et al
2015; Creswell et al 2017; Morgan et al 2017). They draw on principles of
cognitive behavioral therapy — which has a good track record in improving
anxiety symptoms in kids — and typically take only 6-8 weeks to complete.

4. Help kids cope with social threats.

What happens when we feel we are being unfairly judged? Snubbed? Targeted for social discrimination? These situations are stressful, and they
can impair WM performance.

You might wonder if stress hormones are directly responsible,
but that doesn’t seem to be the problem. Instead, it appears that our minds
become partially preoccupied with the job of restraining our negative emotional
responses. And that uses up precious WM (van Ast et al 2016).

For example, experiments show that being reminded of a
derogatory stereotype — concerning one’s own race, sex, or other group
membership — can cause immediate, measurable reductions in WM capacity (Pennington et
al 2016). 

People naturally want to prove the stereotype wrong, and to
succeed, they know they will need to control their negative emotions. It’s hard
to be at the top of your game if you’re feeling anxious, defensive, or
outraged.

So people end up diverting valuable working memory resources
to keeping these emotions under control, leaving less WM capacity for performing the
task at hand (Johns et al 2008).

How early in life might a child’s WM performance be affected by “stereotype
threat”? 

That’s not entirely clear, but experiments in the United States suggest
that boys as young as 7 years perform more poorly on tests of reading, writing,
and mathematics when they are reminded of the “girls are better
students” stereotype (Hartley and Sutton 2013).

And recent research conducted by Kate Wegmann suggests that kids between the ages of 7 and 11 years have no trouble identifying the threats posed by derogatory ethnic stereotypes about academic ability (Wegmann 2017).

It seems likely, then, that school-aged kids experience WM impairments triggered by stereotypes about sex and ethnicity.

There is also evidence that kids experience WM impairments triggered by stereotypes about body weight and obesity (Guardabassi and Tomasetto 2020).

All this might sound very discouraging. But researchers have
identified effective strategies for countering stereotype
threat, which you can read about here.

5. Break down tasks into smaller subroutines, and prompt kids with frequent reminders of what to do next.

Remember what we said about young children having much smaller working memory capacities? We need to keep this in mind when we assign children tasks. Even if our kids are trying to listen and trying to comply, they may lack the ability to keep all of our instructions active in working memory.

So Susan Gathercole and Tracey Alloway (2007) suggest that we avoid giving kids too much information at once. If we want children to complete complex tasks, we should break down the procedure into smaller steps, and offer regular reminders. We should also encourage kids to ask questions when they feel lost.

6. Need some time out? Give kids opportunities to “recharge their batteries” through play, exercise, and time spent in nature.

There are limits to how much information a child can process without taking a break. So it’s important to allow kids downtime.

Indeed, research suggests that we learn more efficiently when we take frequent breaks. Moreover, studies show that kids show improved attention skills — and more academic achievement — when they engage in regular aerobic exercise. And green time? Experiences with the natural world? They appear to be especially restorative.

To read more about it, see my articles

7. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep.

Working memory performance deteriorates when we’re tired and sleepy, and no wonder.

If we’re physically
uncomfortable, that’s a distraction. If we’re sleepy enough during the day, we might also
suffer from spontaneous lapses of consciousness, called microsleeps.  And it makes for a perfect storm. Experiments confirm that one night of sleep
deprivation results in immediate impairments in working memory (e.g., Kopasz et
al 2010; deBruin et al 2017).

But what if it’s more than the occasional bout of poor sleep? What if a child suffers from chronic sleep troubles? There are hints that an ongoing pattern of sleep loss might affect the development of working memory in children (Sciberras et al 2015; Kopasz et al 2010).

For instance, when researchers tested WM in more than 1700
Australian first graders, they found strong links between a child’s habitual sleep patterns and verbal working memory. Kids who slept more poorly had greater WM
difficulties (Cho et al 2015).

Can we turn this around? Is it possible to boost a child’s WM
capacity — and academic performance — by making sure he or she is getting
enough sleep?

I haven’t found any experimental research on the topic. But we’ve probably all experienced the power of a well-timed nap, and researchers have confirmed that naps can give a boost to working memory (Lau et al 2015).

So this is one more reason to solve any sleep problems your child might have. For help, see
these Parenting Science tips.

8. Working memory hack: Encourage verbal rehearsal.

What happens when somebody tells you a new telephone number?
 Until you can make a record of it, you
keep the memory alive by repeating the information back to yourself. You might
speak out loud, or repeat the numbers silently in your head. But either way,
you’re talking to yourself, and that repetition is called “verbal
rehearsal.”

Rehearsal is essential for some WM tasks (Lucidi et al
2016), and many kids discover its value early in life.

Young children often talk to
themselves in ways that help them stay on task (Alderson-Day and Fernyhough
2015), and they may use verbal rehearsal to keep information active in working
memory (Fatzer and Roebers 2012).

Yet children don’t always take full advantage of this
strategy, which might explain some individual differences. Among 5- and
6-year-olds, researchers have found that the use of self-regulatory speech is
linked with better problem-solving (Fernyhough and Fradley 2005; Winsler and Naglieri
2003).

And research suggests that many kids — including young
children, and those with low working memory capacity for their age — may
benefit from being encouraged to voice, or repeat back, key information  (Müller et al
2009; Gatherole and Alloway).

So it makes sense to encourage
kids to make use of verbal rehearsal. And we ought to rethink classroom policies that prevent children from using self-regulatory speech to complete complex tasks. When researchers
asked school kids to solve a visual-spatial puzzle that required planning
ahead, they found that children performed worse when they were instructed not
to speak aloud
(Lidstone et al 2010).

9. Support the use of gestures.

Many people find it natural to gesture as they speak. Is this just a lot of hand waving, or does it serve a purpose?

Decades of experimental research provides an answer: Gestures can help us learn and recall information. And it also appears to help people struggling with WM limitations.

Gesturing helps adults stay on track when they perform visuo-spatial tasks that tap working memory (Wu and Coulson 2014; Morsella and Krauss 2004). It also seems to help adults perform tasks that require verbal WM, especially if they have lower WM capacities to begin with (Gillespie et al 2014).

What about kids? They, too, seem to benefit from gestures.

When Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues asked children to perform a working memory task, kids who spontaneous gestured during the process achieved more (Goldin-Meadow et al 2001).

Moreover, other research indicates that kids learn mathematics more readily when they are asked to perform relevant gestures during a lesson (Cook et al
2006). And the effect is passive, too: Kids learn better when their instructors include relevant gestures in their speech (e.g., Cook et al 2017).

Does this mean gesturing helps everyone? Not necessarily. But researchers suspect that gestures can reduce demands on WM. And it’s clear that suppressing natural gestures can put kids at a disadvantage. When researchers prohibit children from gesturing, they perform worse on WM tests (e.g., Pine et al 2007).

To read more about how gestures help kids learn and reason, see this article.

10. Watch out for symptoms of depression.

Depression doesn’t just affect our emotions. It also impairs our cognitive functions — including working memory (Basnet et al 2015). So if your child has recently lost his or her ability to focus, and you’ve observed mood changes, it’s a good idea to screen your child for depression. Talk to your pediatrician, and seek treatment.

11. Learn, learn, learn. When kids absorb more knowledge, they develop more efficient
ways of juggling information!

Nobody has an objectively
large WM capacity. In
experiments, adults can keep only a few distinct pieces of information in focus
at once — about 3 to 5 items (Cowan 2001). In studies of 7- and 8-year-old
children, the average WMC is just 1-2 items (Riggs et al 2006).

But these are the limits for information that is abstract or
disconnected what we already know. When people are presented with familiar
information, their performance improves.

For instance, if I briefly flashed a sequence of twelve,
apparently random letters at you, and then asked you to repeat them back, you’d
find that very difficult, if not impossible:

CIAUFOPHDIBM

But notice how much easier it is when the letters aren’t
random, but instead a series of meaningful acronyms:

 CIA        UFO       PHD
      IBM

Your underlying working memory capacity hasn’t expanded. But
your performance has.

Your prior knowledge of things like the Central Intelligence
Agency helps you compress many disparate units of information into fewer,
meaningful chunks.

The chunks might contain three letters each, but your
working memory no longer has to keep track of all twelve letters. Instead, you probably
remember each chunk as a distinct item, and rapidly retrieve information from
long-term memory when I ask you to reel off the letters in the correct sequence
(Cowan 2016).

So background knowledge helps you remember a sequence of
letters. What else can it do? A lot.

For example, background knowledge reduces demands on working
memory when we read (Miller et al 2006; Soederberg Miller 2009), allowing us to
process more complex sentence structure.

And one key reason why kids perform more poorly on WM tests
is because they lack the background information that adults take for granted.
When researchers have created WM tests that virtually eliminate the possibility
of prior knowledge, adult WM performance is sometimes reduced to what we
observe in children (Cowan 2016).

Moreover, there is evidence that kids acquire better WM
skills as a function of time spent in school. In a study tracking the progress
of approximately 1700 first graders, researchers found that WM performance
increased steadily over the course of the school year.

Was this merely because the children were getting older?
Apparently not, because when researchers controlled for each student’s age,  they discovered it was the duration of
schooling that mattered. Time spent in school, not age, predicted increases in
WM performance (Roberts et al 2016). This is consistent with the idea that kids
are learning things that help them organize, chunk, and encode information.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that background knowledge is
the only important factor. On some laboratory tests, children show dramatic
gains over time — even when the featured items are totally unfamiliar (Cowan
et al 2015).

But in everyday life, you encounter a mix of information,
familiar and unfamiliar. And having more background information gives you an
advantage.  It helps you reduce demands
on working memory, so you’re less likely to get overwhelmed.

It’s a powerful argument for cranking up your curiosity and
learning more about the world. Being an avid reader, a consumer of interesting
facts, or a collector of new vocabulary may pay off in ways that go beyond the
accumulation of information in long-term memory. It may actually help you repackage
incoming data, freeing up crucial WM resources. You’re left with more WM to
think and solve problems with.

By helping kids discover intellectual passions and soak up
new information, we are laying the groundwork for long-term improvements in
working memory performance.

More information

For more information on this subject, see my Parenting Science guide to working memory.

And for related advice about helping kids follow directions, see my articles,



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Image of boys playing with puzzles by US Army

Image of worried girl by Andy / flickr

Image of mother and daughter hugging my US Dept. of Education

Image of boy sleeping by Woodley Wonderworks / flickr

Image of mother and girl working at desk by AZemdega / istock

Image of toddler gesturing at father by David R Tribble /wikimediacommons

Image of girl reading magazine outdoors by Fiona Graham WorldRemitCommons / flickr

Image of kids reading on bed by Niki Duggan / wikimedia commons

Content last modified 8/2020



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