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Improve Memory Skills

When I ask my 6-year-old son, William, about his day at school, he often replies, "I forgot." Even when I ask him leading questions like "What did you do in gym today?" he usually draws a blank. He's not being uncommunicative; he simply can't remember.

It's actually not surprising that his memory seems maxed out at the end of the day. While preschool is all about play and developing social skills, the focus in kindergarten and elementary school is on processing and storing different kinds of information, says Lisa Dissinger, Ph.D., a child psychologist and parent coach in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. From the moment they wake up until the time they climb into bed at night, 6- to 8-year-olds are expected to remember everything from daily routines to the facts they are learning in class. They need to know letters and numbers automatically so they can begin to read, spell, and solve math problems, and they must be able to record their own experiences in writing. Rather than just listening to stories, they need to answer questions about specific details.

With these increasing academic demands, some kids begin to feel unsure of their ability to recall everything they need to know, and they may even start saying, "I feel stupid." It's important, however, to reassure your child that remembering is a skill he can learn like any other. "You should also collaborate with the teacher to help make sure your child is able to keep up with the work," Dr. Dissinger says.

Mind Over Matter

Memory is a complex process, and 6- to 8- year-olds are developing a range of strategies to help them recall information. Remembering requires the ability to store information for a few seconds (short-term memory), then for several minutes while manipulating information (active working memory), and finally for an extended period of time (long-term memory). For example, when copying spelling words from the blackboard, children must first remember the sequence of letters, and then they need to write the words down without spending a lot of time looking back at the board. Many whisper the words under their breath or repeat the letters out loud to help themselves. Later, they'll have to memorize the words for a spelling test.

The more opportunities your child gets to exercise her memory muscle, the easier it will be for her to handle the load of information in school, Dr. Dissinger says. Here are a few ways to boost your child's brainpower.

  1. Get the details.
    "Studies have shown that parents can have a long-term impact on memory development by including many questions and specifics in conversations about past events with their children," says researcher Catherine Haden, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago. When you talk about a recent trip to the circus, for instance, ask your child, "What was your favorite act?" or "What did the big top look like?" Fill in the details if he can't provide them.
  2. Play memory games.
    The card game Concentration and toys such as Simon and Bop It are good ones. In the car, try games like "I'm going on a picnic, and I'm taking . . . ," in which everyone has a turn adding an item and repeating the ones said previously.
  3. Suggest strategies.
    Look for memory tricks that can help your child. For example, when you teach left and right, have her hold up both hands in the shape of an L. The hand with the forward-facing L is the left one. To help her recall how to read a word with two consecutive vowels, tell her, "When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking."
  4. Divide and conquer.
    If your child has to memorize a short poem or some lines in a class play, have him break the task down into parts and work on the toughest sections first.
  5. Practice, practice, practice.
    Offer to quiz your child on her spelling words or multiplication tables. Try repeating the numbers aloud with her to make them easier to recall. After testing her on spelling, have her highlight and rewrite the difficult words. Once your child realizes that memory is an active process, she'll feel smarter and more confident that she can tackle tricky topics.