Working Memory and Attention

MeeMoOur thanks to guest blogger Dr Richard Skelton for this interesting article, the third in our series of posts on working memory.

Difficulties with concentrating means that children aren’t able to use their Working Memory to process and make sense of information in class. This can lead to underachievement across the curriculum, including literacy and numeracy.

Children use their Working Memory all day every day to process and make sense of information around them. From mental maths calculations to trying to blend and segment letters and sounds in phonics, all these learning activities require a lot of processing ability / Working Memory to achieve. But learning takes a lot of effort and attention to achieve. Imagine trying to have an important conversation while walking through a busy shopping centre, while navigating your way through people, music blaring from the shops as you pass by, and trying to carry heavy bags. Chances are, you’ll struggle to really take in what you’re talking about in comparison to sitting in a quiet room.

Have you ever tried to do a mental maths calculation while someone shouts out random numbers? It’s pretty hard. The random numbers being shouted out distract us easily, causing us to forget where we were at in the mental calculation, and we have to start over. This is a similar experience for children with attention difficulties (e.g. ADHD). But, for them, any sights or sounds distract them, causing them to forget and not be able to think through a maths problem, spelling, or any of the other hundreds of tasks and activities which we need our Working Memory for. That is, for these children with attention difficulties, it is not that they necessarily have a limited Working Memory capacity, but that they are not able to use this capacity because they are often distracted part-way through thinking about something.

As another example, imagine someone tells you their telephone number before walking away, and you need to keep it in mind before you can find a pen and pencil to write it down. To do this, you may find it helpful to say the numbers over and over again to yourself (i.e. rehearse them). As you search for a pen and pencil though, the phone rings and you get distracted for a few minutes. When you’re finished on the phone, chances are you will have forgotten the telephone number you were trying to remember. This is because you were storing it in your Working Memory, which is a ‘use it or lose it’ type ability. If we become distracted, this information is lost, and it’s gone forever. For children who are easily distracted, they often simply don’t have the opportunity to process the information they are presented with.

When thinking about attention, there’s three types which are important for learning and achieving:

  1. Focused / Selective attention. This is their ability to select and focus in on the most important things. For example, their ability to focus on you talking and ignore the children rushing past the window as they play football during PE.
  2. Sustained attention. This is their ability to keep their attention fully focused on an activity. This ability develops over time, and is strongly linked to motivation / interest, as it’s hard to keep focused and the more interesting something is, the more children exert themselves on it.
  3. Shifting attention. This is their ability to shift / switch their attention between two activities. For example, if children are engaging in an activity, and you stop them to call out the next instruction, it’s their ability to shift their attention back to the original task.

Improving children’s attention can help them to achieve better in school because it provides them with greater opportunity to use their Working Memory to process information. Similarly, providing children with Working Memory training can lead to improved attention and achievement in class.

Dr Richard Skelton, Child and Educational Psychologist, creator of MeeMo.

MeeMoMeeMo is a whole-class working memory programme proven to improve working memory ability at KS2, find out more here.


Assessment, Computing and ICT, CPD, English and Literacy, Geography, Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation, History, Intervention and SEN, Mathematics, MeeMo, More able, PE

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