Preface by Anne-Marie
I’m delighted to introduce you to Dr. Leilani Sáez. An educational researcher and former classroom teacher, Dr. Sáez knows how tough it can be to reach kids with working memory weaknesses.
Leilani Sáez is an educational psychologist currently working as a research associate at Behavioral Research & Teaching (BRT), a research center at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on the early identification of learning difficulties, and the development and use of assessments designed to guide instruction and learning. In particular, she is interested in clarifying how working memory processing impacts learning. Dr. Sáez has 20 years of experience in school settings, including as a teacher of students with learning disabilities, as a university learning specialist, and a preK-12 researcher. She presents her work at national conferences and writes research articles and book chapters about reading, working memory, learning disabilities, and measurement.
You’re in for a treat today as she demystifies one of the most common challenges educators and parents face – helping kids to follow multi-step directions.
My favorite part? Her powerful and practical three-step toolkit for supporting children.
Have you ever wondered why your student or child doesn’t follow directions well?
Although it may seem as if everyone should be able to follow directions, many children and adults with learning difficulties silently struggle to follow more than one step.
Have you ever seen a blank stare or frozen hesitation from a student after delivering a set of directions? As a parent or teacher, you may have questioned whether you were being understood. But perhaps you didn’t give much thought to the mental complexity involved in your request.
Multi-step directions are cognitively demanding, and their successful completion requires the use of a particular process called working memory. Of course there are other prerequisites (like motivation), but that’s another blog post entirely. In this article, we’ll focus on the role of working memory because it is crucial for completing day-to-day tasks and frequently goes unnoticed. Let me explain.
Successfully following multi-step directions entails the completion of a set of procedures to accomplish a goal. This requires working memory.
Multi-step directions and their goals can take many forms:
At home, goals may include preparing a meal, getting ready for school, or cleaning the bathroom. All of these activities involve multiple steps that need to be performed in order to accomplish the goal. A breakdown in following these steps may mean:
- The bathroom mirror doesn’t get cleaned
- Teeth don’t get brushed, or
- An important dessert ingredient gets missed.
In school, goals may include academic exercises or daily routines. For example, completing a long division problem has multiple steps – any one of which might be forgotten.
Elementary school routines often contain multiple steps, which challenge working memory. Jobs like hanging coats, placing lunch boxes in an assigned location, or sitting quietly until school begins can be challenging working memory tasks. Students with working memory challenges may appear forgetful or disobedient because they fail to complete some of these steps.
Children and adults with processing-related learning difficulties are especially prone to missing steps when following multi-step directions. Both the goal and the steps need to be kept in mind at the same time.
This can be can be “brain-draining.” Consider what the brain has to do in order to follow a set of multi-step directions:
- Pay attention to the directions as they are given.
- Hold on to the goal as tasks are completed.
- Hold on to the details of each task as it is completed.
For example, a multi-step task like taking out the trash requires remembering the ultimate goal while completing the individual steps. Working memory guides us through the mental juggling of these steps, such as checking for trash in other areas, closing the full trash bag to avoid spills, tossing the full bag into an outside container, or bringing out a new replacement bag.
In psychology circles, working memory is sometimes referred to as a “spotlight of retrieval”1 because when we engage in a complex task (like following multi-step directions) we need the ability to retrieve information from memory.
Some memories have very clear paths for retrieval. Other memories are overly connected and cluttered. As an example, remembering what you did yesterday is an easy task, but remembering what you did months ago could be challenging.
This is why we need a “spotlight” to bring to our attention the information we specifically need and not a “lamp,” which would illuminate too much information.
Working memory helps us accomplish goals and their multiple steps by “shining a spotlight” on the most critical pieces of information.
In order to compensate for a limited store of mental resources for processing 2,3 what we see, hear, smell, taste, and imagine, we constantly switch our attention (or our “spotlight”) between multiple bits of information.
Strong working memory overcomes this limited processing capacity by efficiently switching our attention between the goal and each step as needed until the goal is reached.
Thus, the strength of our working memory directly impacts how well we can follow directions.
Supporting Students With Weak Working Memory
Some children struggle with weak working memory because of other processing difficulties that strain the majority of their available mental resources.
For example, reading a list requires word recognition processes. If a student struggles with word recognition, this may impact working memory.
For other students, weak working memory is the primary problem. For these individuals, although working memory improves with age4, following multi-step directions may remain a life-long challenge because poor working memory is not outgrown5. However, it can be compensated for with adequate supports and good habits.
No matter the reason for weak working memory, you can use these tools to better support students who struggle with multi-step activities:
Write multi-step directions down and devise a system for keeping track of progress6 while completing the task. This provides a written scaffold (or “external support”) so that the need to rely solely on working memory for processing is minimized7. Looking at written directions helps update processing without the working memory “cost” associated with retrieving each step. In addition, create signals for tracking progress that keep the focus on the next step in order to accomplish the goal. These visual cues tell the brain what no longer needs attention, thus lightening the mental load. For example, when teaching students how to complete a list of tasks:
- Write down the steps.
- Show the child how to strategically hold the list so that his/her thumb is always pointing to the next step.
- Practice moving the thumb down the list as steps are completed, providing a discreet point of reference when identifying the next step.
- Have students mark completed steps by crossing-off or making checkmarks.
Visually “chunk” or lump together related steps. Related information is easier to mentally access than unrelated information8. Strategically organizing steps can reduce the unnecessary cognitive burden that undermines working memory processing and makes performance and learning less efficient9. It also makes remembering easier10. For example:
- When developing routines for entering the home or classroom, efficiently sequence steps in order of location after walking through the door. If hanging the coat is not something that can be done immediately after walking through the doorway, don’t make it the first step.
- Use (lots of) white space on worksheets between different problems, steps, or types of items to visually separate them. This helps the brain visually distinguish between different things to process, reducing the mental burden.
To see these principles in action, you can click the images below to download two free templates:
Break down multiple steps with checkpoints to clarify what is good performance11. Adding checkpoints ensures that the steps were successfully completed, and also helps the child understand what to do next. These checkpoints also provide re-direction for managing mind-wandering and distractibility associated with poor working memory12. For example:
- If a recipe has six steps, encourage the child to do 2-3 steps of the recipe on his/her own. Instruct the student to check in with you before continuing.
- When completing a multi-step problem, have the student complete 1-2 steps and check to make sure they were completed correctly before continuing. Do this repeatedly for multiple problems until solving all parts of the problem becomes a more fluent habit. Then fade back help as necessary.
The key to supporting students who struggle to follow multi-step directions is to recognize and accept when and how support is needed.
Strong, well-structured support is needed when learning new skills or habits. Once tasks become more routine, performance will improve as strategies beyond working memory processing13 are used to remember what to do in the moment.
As a parent or teacher, be sure that the directions you give are specific.
Can each step be individually listed?
Be sure the directions you give are clear.
Can a stranger follow them?
And make sure your directions are measurable.
Can progress be observed by anyone watching?
When children struggle to follow multi-step directions, everyone loses.
Frustrations mount, and more insidiously, negative attitudes can begin to frame both the adult’s and child’s perceptions of capability. Pretty soon, the child may be seen (or internalize him/herself) as lazy, disobedient, or dumb, when in fact there is an “invisible” constraint at work.
The presence of learning difficulties already indicates a brain hard at work. By making the invisible more visible, we can have greater success helping children with working memory processing difficulties reach their goals, both large and small.
1 Rohrer, D., Pashler, H., & Etchegaray, J. (1998). When two memories can and cannot be retrieved concurrently. Memory & Cognition, 26, 731-739.
2 Barrouillet, P., Bernardin, S., & Camos, V. (2004). Time constraints and resource sharing in adults’ working memory spans. Journal of Educational Psychology: General, 133, 1, 83-100.
3 Posner, M. I., Snyder, C. R., & Davidson, B. J. (1980). Attention and the detection of signals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 109, 2, 160-174.
4 Gathercole, S. E., Pickering, S. J., Ambridge, B., & Wearing, H. (2004). The structure of working memory from 4 to 15 years of age. Developmental Psychology, 40, 2, 177-190.
5 Swanson, H. L. (2003). Age-related differences in learning disabled and skilled readers’ working memory. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85, 1, 1-31.
6 Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
7 Gathercole, S. E., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. P. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. In S. J. Pickering (Ed.), Working memory and education (pp.219-240). London, UK: Academic Press.
8 Anderson, J. R. (1990). Cognitive psychology and its implications (3rd ed). New York, New York: W. H. Freeman.
9 Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
10 Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (1998). Enhancing school success with mnemonic strategies. Intervention in School and Clinic, 33(4), 201-208.
11 Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.
12 Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., Kirkwood, H., & Elliott, J. (2009). The cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with low working memory. Child development, 80 (2), 606-621.
13 Anderson, J. R. (1995). Learning and memory: An integrated approach. New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Boy In Spotlight – “spotlight” is copyright (c) 2010 nicoleec and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.
Lost Teddy Bear – “lost, forgotten & ignored” is copyright (c) 2013 Flowizm and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.
Shopping List – “Found At Ralphs” is copyright (c) 2007 Karen and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.