As learning specialists, we were keenly aware of the interaction between executive functioning skills and a student’s success in school long before we began the challenge of teaching remotely. Online learning has only magnified the importance of students’ executive functioning skills, which are process skills that allow people to successfully complete tasks. They include working memory, task initiation, planning, and prioritization. Research has shown that executive function skills develop when children are given explicit teaching and practice using these skills. Therefore, teachers have a responsibility and, more important, an opportunity to cultivate these skills.
We know that students with weak working memories have more difficulties in the classroom. Working memory is the ability to temporarily hold on to and utilize information. Daily demands on a student’s working memory include completing multistep directions and prioritizing information.
The demands on a student’s working memory intensify while the student is online. Activities involve more language, more steps, and new routines, and often lack visual prompts. Many of the strategies that students utilize in the classroom to compensate for their working memory challenges are no longer available to them. For example, we find that when students with weak working memories are in the classroom, they use their classmates’ cues as reminders to complete a task. When online, teachers find it more difficult to include a visual reminder to support these students, such as an anchor chart. We watched the gap between those with strong executive functioning skills and weak executive functioning skills grow over the last year.
We are left thinking: How can we directly support the growth of working memory both in the classroom and remotely? Here are some small changes we plan to make to our routine, design, and language.
4 Simple Ways to Bolster Students’ Working Memory
1. Predictability. Students do not find predictable routines boring. Much to the contrary, routines decrease stress and free up a student’s working memory. When students have internalized a routine, they can utilize their working memory for other information. Consider recycling structures. For example, preteach the routine of a T-chart and use it for different content areas. When students recognize the structure, they can focus on the content itself.
2. Paper design. Beware of blank space on a worksheet. When a space is blank, students must first figure out how to organize the space. The space does not provide any visual reminders of what that task at hand is. Consider using visual cues such as boldfaced text, bullet points, and lines to organize students’ thinking. When you want a student to respond with a word or two, use a bullet point. If you want a more detailed answer, use a line. Students will not have to use their working memory to hold on to the direction of the task but can focus on organizing their thinking. Furthermore, if your paper design follows a predictable pattern, students will be able to focus on the higher-order thinking tasks of an assignment.
3. Language. Plan your language just as you would plan out the content you want to cover and materials needed for a given lesson. Directions should be specific, brief, and repetitive, and begin with verbs. Students with weak working memories can only hold on to small amounts of information. When each direction begins with a verb, students are more likely to remember and prioritize this information. The verbs also provide key words that can be repeated. For example, instead of saying, “Count the groups of dollars and coins, and match them with the correct totals,” try the following:
1. Count the money.
2. Match the groups with the totals.
Students can be reminded to count and match.
4. Transitions. Research shows that stress negatively impacts executive functioning skills, specifically one’s ability to utilize their working memory. We had this experience at the beginning of the pandemic as teachers. As stress levels rose, our ability to retain and recall information suffered. The transition into a new activity not only sets the tone for the period but also can increase or decrease stress and thus a student’s working memory. Here are some transition ideas:
- In school, consider a silent transition into the classroom.
- Play the same song at the beginning of each class. When the song is completed, students know you will begin.
- Play a small game that is low stakes as a class opener.
As teachers, we’re always thinking about curriculum and how we can teach content. We often teach these process skills, but not always explicitly. By making small changes to the routines, design, and language we use, we can be more consistent and intentional about supporting students’ working memory and thus pave the pathway for their success.