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Executive Function Components: Part 1 Working Memory


Executive Function Components: Part 1 Working Memory

Our last post provided an overview of the role of executive functions in children’s learning and development. We also discussed the importance of being able to identify possible issues with executive functioning. This is the first post in three-part series. We will look at the core parts of executive function; these include working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. We begin with working memory.


What is Working Memory?

Working memory allows us to briefly hold information in mind and work with that information mentally. This is critical for problem solving, reasoning, and learning to speak and read. [1,2,3] There are two types of working memory. One processes visual-spatial information and the other processes verbal information. [2] Young children typically rely on visual working memory. [4] An example is using number lines or pointing to items while counting. As children age, they come to rely more on verbal working memory, such as repeatedly spelling a word out loud to study for a spelling test. [2]

There is a limit to how much can be stored in working memory at a given time. Its contents must be updated when there is new information or old information is modified. For example, counting M&Ms involves mentally updating a number as each one is counted. If both red and green M&Ms are being counted separately, two numbers must be held and updated at the same time. Each time a candy of one color is counted, the number is updated in working memory and the previous number is dropped. [5]

Another role of working memory is that it helps us keep track of our progress and know what still needs to be done during multi-step tasks. [2,5] For example, after meal time children may be instructed to dump their plates, wash hands, put on jackets, and line up by the door. Here, working memory acts as a mental checklist; it helps children keeps track of what they need to do, and once information is no longer relevant (i.e., a task is completed), it is crossed off the list. [5]


Working Memory in Preschoolers

Strong working memory in children is linked to school readiness, social skills, [6] and classroom engagement. [1,3,7,8] Children with poor working memory may have a hard time following directions. They may also have trouble completing tasks. These children are more easily overwhelmed and may become easily frustrated. This can cause problems in the classroom and make learning difficult. Working memory influences a child’s ability to learn and is a strong predictor of later academic achievement. [8]

Children use working memory in a classroom when they:

  • Follow multi-step directions
  • Recall or repeat words or phrases
  • Remember a sequence of numbers or words
  • Identify rhyming words
  • Remember the topic and respond appropriately in conversations
  • Follow a story
  • Remember what to say when called upon
  • Remember and follow the rules of a game [9]


Supporting Working Memory in Children

We will discuss ways to boost children’s working memory more thoroughly in a future post. In the meantime, check out this list of eight tips for how to support children’s working memory provided by A few of these tips might be above the abilities of preschool-aged children, but most of them can be used with children of all age levels.

8 Working Memory Boosters from


Below you will also find a handout about working memory for parents that you can download and share.



[1] Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34-48.
[2] Holmes, J., Gathercole, S. E., & Dunning, D. L. (2009). Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Developmental Science, 12(4).
[3] Roman, A. S., Pisoni, D. B., & Kronenberger, W. G. (2014). Assessment of working memory capacity in preschool children using the missing scan task. Infant and Child Development,23(6), 575-587.
[4] Van de Weijer-Bergsma, E., Kroesbergen, E. H., & Van Luit, J. E. (2015). Verbal and visual-spatial working memory and mathematical ability in different domains throughout primary school. Memory & Cognition, 43(3), 367-378.
[5] Ecker, U. K., Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Chee, A. E. (2010). The components of working memory updating: An experimental decomposition and individual differences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(1), 170.
[6] Sabol, T. J., & Pianta, R. C. (2012). Patterns of school readiness forecast achievement and socioemotional development at the end of elementary school. Child Development, 83(1), 282-299.
[7] Fitzpatrick, C., & Pagani, L. S. (2012). Toddler working memory skills predict kindergarten school readiness. Intelligence, 40(2), 205-212.
[8] Gathercole, S., & Alloway, T. (2007). Understanding working memory: A classroom guide. Retrieved from
[9] Kid Sense Child Development. (2017). Working memory. Retrieved from