All children forget things they’ve heard now and then, but for some children forgetfulness happens frequently and is problematic. Parents of the chronically forgetful are faced with the difficult task of trying to determine if their child is genuinely not retaining information or is being willfully non-compliant.
One way to determine if memory issues are causing difficulties is to check in with the child is to see if she can repeat back what you just told her to do. A child who only remembers one out of three directions will not be able to comply with completing all three. Sometimes a child with working memory difficulties can repeat back what they’ve heard immediately, but the information is not retained long enough for them to act on it before it is forgotten. When memory issues are causing difficulties, there are a number of strategies to improve retention and compensate for weaknesses.
One way to help those who have trouble remembering things is to develop routines that can become habits. For example, if you want your child to do the same three things every morning, have him perform the activities in the same order and in the same location each day. Once there has been enough repetition to form a habit, the child no longer has to work to remember the three morning chores.
Some children remember sequences and lists better when using music as an auditory prompt and reminder. Try making up songs that incorporate the task you want your child to complete. Generate your own song or use a familiar tune and change the words to fit the activity.
Songs allow for repetition, which helps with memory and can aid your child in sticking with an activity for an adequate amount of time. For instance, you could sing a song about washing hands to help your child remember all the steps involved and to keep them washing long enough to get clean. They can learn a tooth brushing song and sing it in their minds to keep them brushing and remembering to brush the top and bottom teeth on both sides.
Another strategy to facilitate memory is to use visual cues in addition to the auditory directions given to a child. For young children or those with language delays, use gestures along with your verbal directions. If you need to remind your child to put his coat in the closet, point to the coat and then to the closet as you tell him to pick up the coat and hang it where it belongs.
When a child has difficulty remembering routine daily activities try using pictures, charts, and lists that can serve as constant visual reminders. This will relieve some of the burden on auditory or working memory alone. Post the charts or checklists where the child can see them at the time and place they are needed to complete the tasks. This will also help the child to be consistently reminded through visual cues without the parent needing to frequently prompt and repeat what needs to be done.
For activities that are not part of a routine, the child needs to develop strategies using internal cues to help retain the information long enough to complete tasks. For some children, repeating the directions to themselves over and over until the job is done may be effective. For example, the child who is likely to forget what he was sent upstairs to retrieve might prompt himself by repeating, “Go to the bedroom. Bring back the history book.”
My own children benefited greatly by applying the “make a movie” technique. Before I’d give them a direction, I’d instruct them to “make a movie in your mind” about what I was telling them to do. Then I would tell them step-by-step what I wanted them to do. I’d ask them to picture themselves completing the task and encouraged them to imagine themselves following the directions to completion.
The more color, detail, and even humor that was included in their movies, the easier it was for them to remember what they needed to accomplish. I’d tell them to push the “play” button and then send them off to do the errand with a reminder that if they forgot what they needed to do they could replay the movie in their minds and see if that helped them remember.
Memory challenges can be frustrating for parents and children alike. By incorporating strategies into daily activities, children can begin to develop skills and learn to compensate for their memory difficulties. It’s never too early or too late to work on improving memory.