When it comes to our child's brain development, learning and memory go hand-in-hand. A strong memory helps children recall knowledge faster, more accurately, and helps them widen their knowledge base quicker than their peers. So, how can parents support their child's memory development? Let's take a look at how memory works and how we can use the natural brain development our children go through as they age to give them a boost.
Types of Memory
Stored memory is categorized into two types: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic memory refers to facts that we can recall. What's the capital of Vermont? That's stored in your semantic memory. Episodic memory refers to our recollection of events, thoughts, and experiences. Our own personal history. These two types of memories can often work together. Can't remember where you parked your car? Remembering the act of parking it can spark that information.
When our brain is making memories, we first commit it to our short-term memory. Despite how the phrase is often used, short term memory only lasts a few seconds at a time. If we can retain the information without distraction, then the memory is encoded in our long-term memory. Humans tend only to be able to hold 7 bits of information at a time, like the components of an address or the numbers in a telephone number.
Managing all these functions is the job of our working memory. Through our working memory, we process information, decide what to remember and what to discard, and work on complex thought tasks. Our working memory is also responsible for storing and organizing our thoughts for later recollection. Usually, it's the strength of our working memory that we tend to credit for our memories being good or bad in general.
Memory Development in Children
What's your earliest memory? For most of us, our episodic memories tend to begin around age 4-6. While children can store episodic memories almost from birth, we tend to lose all of those memories as we age. Conversely, it's the semantic memories we form at this time, our ABC's and 1-2-3's, that we never forget.
So, are those episodic memories really gone? Research into how children form memories says not quite. When we recall events, we have an explicit memory of the event. We also have an implicit memory of that event, which is the way that they event made us feel and the impression we got from it. While we may not be able to recall the events which happened to us at age 2, we are left with an impression that we carry with us forever. A love of trains, a fear of bees, a suspicion of people who wear glasses, any of our inherent biases that we have could potentially trace back to something that we experienced as a toddler.
Can episodic memory be improved in children? Yes and no. While all children will experience a loss of memory known as childhood amnesia, many children are able to recall explicit memories from as early as 3 years old. Strengthening this part of your child's memory is a process of fostering recollection. Ask your children to recall events with examples. Use the 5 W's when prompting them to describe what happened. Reenforcing these memories will not only help your child retain them into adulthood. It also creates a positive pattern of behavior which can make retaining and recollecting episodic memories as they age.
Improving Your Child's Working Memory
As we said before, a strong working memory is the key to a strong overall memory. How can you improve this function of brain development in your child? As educators, this is something that we work on in the classroom daily, and you can, too!
Teachers use a technique called Cognitive Strategy Instruction to improve working memory and make learning more effective. CSI is a goal-based method of instruction which focuses on How and Why. What are the steps required to complete a task? And what are the reasons for each step contributing to the goal being achieved? Using an array of strategies, educators can strengthen children's working memory and keep them more task-oriented. One of the most well-known examples of CSI is the PB&J test and it's something you might have encountered in your schooling as well.
How do you use the principles of CSI at home? It's all about communication. Firstly, don't be afraid of memory aids. "I before E except after C," we all remember for a reason. It's helpful and it works! Allow your child from an early age to take notes, journal thoughts and feelings, use reminders around the house (even pictures for pre-literate aged children work well), and use mnemonic devices. These are not crutches. They are helping your child to internalize the best way to organize their own thoughts.
Also, be mindful that a working memory starts small. What seems like a simple task to you, "Clean up your toys," or "Unpack your backpack," is actually a ton of different little steps. Start small and grow so that your child doesn't give up and lose track of what they're doing. Stay goal-oriented to keep the child on task. Little by little, you will watch their working memory grow. We love incremental progress!
Here are some more resources for memory-boosting games for children.