Memory Learning Disabilities

Warning Signs of a Memory Learning Disability

Memory Disabilities
Children with memory deficits often struggle getting their thoughts down on paper.

Some children with learning disabilities have difficulty organizing their thoughts and verbally expressing them. Others struggle getting their thoughts down on paper. All the while, some children have difficulty remembering information. An effective memory is critical to a child’s academic and social development and success. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology has demonstrated a relationship between children with memory disabilities and weaknesses in academic areas.

Memory is divided into two levels: short-term memory and long-term memory. Short-term memory represents a limited capacity and duration for retaining information. The information is available while it is being attended to, but may be lost if not constantly repeated or associated with something already familiar to the individual. Long-term memory represents stored information of a longer duration. Short-term memory deficits in children are more common than long-term memory deficits and may be a sign of a learning disability.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is one of the most important aspects that affect learning and everyday life. When you are told to remember a phone number, your short term memory is chugging away at work holding that information. Through concentration and repetition, most people can recall this kind of information, if they are not interrupted or distracted and the information is used immediately.

 Many children who have difficulty at school have poor short-term memory.

The term “working memory” is often used to describe a specific phase of short-term memory where information is integrated for a specific task (E.g. going to the grocery store to purchase a number of items – without a grocery list).

There are two types of working memory. First, information learned through what a child hears is called auditory (verbal) working memory. Second, information learned through what a child sees is called visual-spatial working memory. Auditory working memory typically affects learning more so than visual-spatial working memory, due in large part to the plethora of stimuli and information conveyed verbally at school. Children can have one or both of these types of working memory deficits.

Warning Signs of a Child with a Short-term Memory Disability

  • Greater number of repetitions over several days to grasp a concept as compared to the average child without a memory deficit.
  • Appearing to understand and remember a concept in the moment, but forgetting it later that day or the next day.
  • Getting angry and easily frustrated while doing homework.
  • Failing to complete assignments.
  • Stopping halfway into a sentence while speaking and saying things like: “Oh, forget it” or “It’s not important anyway” or “I forgot what I was going to say.”
  • Unable to follow a set of multi-step directions (e.g. “When you get home, let the dog out, throw out the trash, empty the dishwasher, and then do your homework.”).
  • Forgetting how to continue an activity that he/she has started, even though instructions have been provided.
  • Has difficulty problem solving at school and at home.
  • Reading a page and remembering it, reading another page and remembering it, and then forgetting what was read on the first page.

Formal Testing

Many children with memory disabilities go undiagnosed and struggle with understanding concepts in different subject matter. It is important to assess not only short-term memory, but working memory.  According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, there are two recommended assessments for testing a person’s working memory. These include The Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA), a PC-based assessment published by Pearson and The Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning (WRAML-2), published by PRO-ED. Without appropriate diagnosis and intervention, children with poor working memory will have a difficult time meeting academic demands and will potentially fall grade levels behind their peers.


1. Alloway, T. et al. The Cognitive and Behavioral Characteristics of Children With Low Working Memory. Child Development. 2009 March/April; 80(2): 606-621. 

2. Swanson, H. and Sachse-Lee, C.  Mathematical Problem Solving and Working Memory in Children with Learning Disabilities: Both Executive and Phonological Processes Are Important. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.  2001 July; 79(3): 294-321.

3. What Is Working Memory and Why Does It Matter? National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from

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