How is Working Memory Related to Learning & Attention?

Working memory is the ability to briefly (a few seconds) remember information and use this information in your thinking. It is important because it helps to drive the other executive functions of the brain. Your working memory is closely related to your ability to pay attention and learn: you can remember information for a short while by concentrating on it, but it disappears from your memory if you are distracted.



If you have or your child/teen has trouble with several of the following tasks, you may have trouble with your working memory:

These problems are commonly experienced by children, teens and adults who not only have working memory deficits but also have learning differences or ADHD traits. The guide below breaks down the tasks  that require working memory and what happens when working memory is not working at its fullest potential by developmental stages/age groups.


Age Group Tasks that require working memory Indicators that working memory can be improved
  • Learning the alphabet
  • Focusing on short instructions (e.g. “brush your teeth”)
  • Remaining seated to complete independent activities, such as puzzles
  • Seems unwilling or unable to learn alphabet, numbers
  • Can’t focus long enough to grasp and follow instructions
  • Flits from one thing to another
Elementary school
  • Reading and understanding the content (reading comprehension)
  • Mental arithmetic
  • Interacting and reacting appropriately in peer activities (e.g. playing on the school   ground)
  • Reads (decodes) but does not understand the material read
  • Problems with memorizing math facts
  • Difficulty participating in group activities (e.g. waiting turn); makes friends but   cannot keep them
Middle school
  • Doing homework independently
  • Planning and packing for an activity (e.g., dance class)
  • Solving multi-step math problems, especially word problems
  • Participating in team sports (e.g. soccer)
  • Does not begin or persist with homework without supervision
  • Packs but forgets items that are essential for activity
  • Reads the problem but cannot break it into understandable parts
  • Problems grasping rules of game; functioning as a team player
High School
  • Getting a driver’s license
  • Understanding social cues, responding to demands of a social situation
  • Writing essays, reports
  • Problems with spatial awareness, reading and following traffic cues
  • Interrupts, talks excessively, doesn’t listen to others
  • Essays and reports are short, sloppy and disorganized
  • Focusing and following a conversation
  • Making and adhering to work plans (e.g. studying for an exam)
  • Participating in group activities in school
  • Sustaining focus and interest throughout lectures
  • Changes topics suddenly, makes irrelevant comments
  • Procrastinates, then tries to “cram” the night before an exam
  • Doesn’t listen or participate during group activities
  • Falls asleep or “zones out” during lectures
  • Getting to work on time
  • Meeting deadlines at work
  • Prioritizing multiple activities
  • Handling conflicts within the family
  • Frequently late to work
  • Often underestimates time required for a task
  • Has problems breaking a project into manageable steps
  • Often loses temper with children and spouse
Seniors (all adults items apply)
  • Being able to perform what you are planning to do
  • Organizing materials and activities
  • Managing important financial transactions
  • Forgetfulness, distractibility
  • Mislaying things like glasses, cell phone, keys, etc.
  • Makes miscalculations

Torkel Klingberg, MD, PhD, neuroscientist, founder of Cogmed and author of The Learning Brain, talks about the importance and impact of working memory on children’s school performance. Working memory influences the ability to focus, remember instructions, make mental math calculations and other important abilities necessary to learn in a classroom.

More information and videos about working memory and executive function is available on the Resources page.

We are available to speak with you at (917) 723-9986 or email to explore if you or someone that you know would benefit from Cogmed Working Memory Training.