You know the ones; those students that seem to have their hand up every five seconds, who struggle to follow basic instructions, who need to be led through each task on a taut, time-consuming leash. 

Low working memory is the likely culprit in such cases, Professor Susan Colmar, from The University of Sydney says. 

“Kids with low working memory, basically they can get what’s called ‘memory overload’, so let’s just say you were the teacher and you gave three instructions, they might only get the first one, so that becomes a problem…

“They seem to have greater difficulty with listening and attention in the first place, and they are also the same sorts of kids who seem to be not very good at having strategies for going forward.” 

Colmar says that up until now the options for educators have been scant, with research on the effect of classroom-based working memory programs in Australia close to obsolete. 

Intent on filling this cavity, Colmar has teamed up with NSW Department of Education psychologists Nash Davis and Linda Sheldon to develop ‘Memory Mates’, a research-based program that trains primary teachers to help their students adopt and use ten attention and working memory strategies that encourage independent learning. 

“Even quite able kids still get a lot out of it – it’s like a reminder of how to listen, how to remember instructions, how to almost summarise what’s been said. Lots of things actually come out of it,” Colmar explains. 

Approaches include active listening, self-talk, linking the new information to existing knowledge, time management and visualisation, which are displayed as laminated icons up on classroom walls, ready for young eyes to glance over whenever they feel stuck. 
The results of the pilot study have been “truly staggering”, Colmar reports. 

“We began with a very small study in one classroom in one school, with four kids who had quite major difficulties with working memory and we kept quite detailed data on their behaviour and learning.

“[We] found that they went from being inattentive, not engaged in the classroom, not doing very well, to basically 100 per cent connected.” 

Spurred on, the trio rolled out Memory Mates to 13 classes across six schools, finding the program pushed “significant” improvements in maths and spelling. 

“There was no child that didn’t enjoy doing it … and the notion is that they take ownership of it for themselves and adapt it for themselves.” 

According to Colmar, Memory Mates prompts more than just a joining of the dots in developing brains – it links both teacher and student together in the learning process. 

“At the moment … there’s basically three ways in which working memory problems in children are addressed, one is put the kid in front of a computer program, and the child practices working-memory related skills, and there’s major research done in Australia on that which shows it has a short-term benefit, but doesn’t sustain long-term [improvement]. 

“Then there’s books written for teachers, which again the one piece of solid research on that shows that it didn’t make any difference…

“And then there’s [Memory Mates], which is actually the only thing that is targeted for kids in their classroom, plus the teachers’ support materials, so it combines teachers and children but in their own context, not in isolation.”