Working Memory: A Special Education Teacher’s Experience

As a special education teacher, the term “working memory” is a familiar concept.  We see many students whose independent education plans indicate difficulties in this area, and we create accommodations to support their learning.  I thought I’d really grasped the complexities – until it happened to me.  Now, I have a whole new appreciation for students faced with this challenge and recognize how truly difficult the school system must be for them.  The following TedTalk with Peter Doolittle, whose focus is on psychology and learning, explains in simple terms what working memory is:


How did you do on the memory test?  Now imagine that your brain is not fully functioning in this area.  Here is what it looks like for me:

Cooking, even the simplest thing, has become a chore.  Where I once could throw together any number of dishes without referencing a recipe, this is currently not happening. I might complete two steps of a recipe but my brain will get stuck on the third, either not remembering what comes next, or becoming suddenly lost about what I just did, or skipping it all together.  Once frustrated, my mind will shut down completely and I have to surrender the task.

In a group setting, I will have difficulty following just one conversation (as mentioned in the video), and often lose the context of any of them.  Compounding the situation is that while trying to be attentive to the talk in the room, I will lose other important information, such as people’s names.  For example: over the Christmas celebration, which in our family went on for two days, I combined the name of my son with his girlfriend’s, referring to each of them by the muddled version.  I apparently did it four times, before someone gently pointed out to me my mistake.

The worst is that when someone presents a new idea to me, or asks a question that involves thinking, I draw a blank.  My mind just does not compute.  I am conscious of frantically searching for some semblance of meaning, asking myself questions such as:  “What does he mean?” or “Why is he asking me that?” or “What is she looking for?”  The resounding lack of response is discouraging.  In many instances, the penny won’t drop for up to two days.

Each frustration that I experience reminds me of my students.  I am an adult, and can laugh it off, or walk away and come back with renewed ambition – my self-esteem doesn’t rely on my mental competence, as I have an established track record  indicating the problem is temporary.  Yet, I do get down on myself, and some days, feel like giving up.   Imagine how a child, for whom school performance is all important, must feel.
If I think about writing a test that relies primarily on my ability to take information that I have not yet processed, and apply it correctly – the assumption being that I have it memorized – I can understand how students shut down.  Even writing this blog, I am dependent on the constant support of resources, such as a thesaurus, a dictionary, and other supports.  I could not do it without them.

Likewise, I cannot expect my brain to function with background noise, or distractions.  I often have to step away, and start again, when I am able to re-focus.  Students are expected to work under many pressures, a deadline being one of them.

I often thing of “K”.  “K” was a lovely young man, respectful, soft spoken, who at the age of fourteen, had lost all confidence in himself.  He’d bring his math work down to the Resource room and stare off into space for long periods of time, or put his head on the desk and shut down.  No matter how much I’d try to encourage him, he had just given up.  Faced with failure after failure, he just decided school wasn’t for him anymore.  He hated himself.  “K” had a faulty working memory.

And yet, if I’d take the paper, and read the question and put it into a context he could relate to, he could talk it through, and for the most part demonstrate an understanding of the concepts.  Unfortunately, most math testing does not allow for this.  He was expected to remember and apply the mathematical equations they’d learned in class.  Knowing what I do now, even I couldn’t pass such tests.  I cannot trust my brain to carry the information through to completion.

I am learning to live with my disability, creating compensations, putting supports in place, and recognizing my limitations.  (My husband and I agree to always trust his confusion over mine.)
As educators, we have a long way to go to support student success.  I think we have to go back and look at the basics – how we introduce the information, how we help students process it, and the supports we put in place that optimize their success when demonstrating learning.  The best thing we can do for students like “K” are to help them learn to recognize their challenges and find strategies that will serve them well into their lives, instead of constantly reminding them that they do not fit the norm.

I’ll be thinking a lot about this over the next little while, as I am trying to cope with my own working memory loss.

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Permission to write, paint, and imagine are the gifts I gave myself when chronic illness hit - a fair exchange: being for doing. Relevance is an attitude. Humour essential.

2 thoughts on “Working Memory: A Special Education Teacher’s Experience

  1. Thank you for this post. I struggle immensely with working memory and always have with adhd. However on the flip side I had at one point a high processing rate of 91 percent over the population. You are so right, people do not understand how working memory is needed to everything in life even in simplest chore. Hang in there, I know we have humor to help pad the everyday frustrations 🙂


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