Teaching Children and Teens Who Have Memory Challenges
By Laurie Hunter

Updated August 31, 2020

I’ve learned that the main reason students underperform in classrooms and on tests is because they have poor working and short-term memories. They are at a clear disadvantage in the classroom. When students struggle to recall what they are (not) learning, it affects their ability to pass tests, calculate, and/or write essays. It can cause anxiety, overwhelm, and undesirable behaviors in the classroom and at home. Over time, it can wear students (and teachers) down and incite annoying behaviors that make them appear as though they don’t care or that they’re just not trying hard enough.

I challenge teachers, tutors, and parents to join me in uncovering the true reasons why the bottom quartile struggles and to help them pass assessments and achieve success. Those who work to increase their students’ memory recall and retention can benefit by using the strategies in this article. When we use methods such as these, not only will we increase the grades and confidence of our lowest performers, but we will also increase the knowledge base and skills for all our students.

Make It Relevant

Rote memorization is particularly challenging for students with poor working or short-term memories. Do you remember having to learn your multiplication tables or the state capitols? For example, I could not remember the state capitols that I’d never visited. Also, if I was not familiar with the name of a state or city, then I did not have a meaningful base to connect to the corresponding city or state. Memorizing and recalling facts, concepts, and processes can be very difficult for students with poor working or short-term memory.

One way we, instructors, can make what we’re teaching more relevant to our students who have poor memory recall is by giving our students a Cultural Quiz. In the book, Cultivating Respect and Cooperation, I explain how I created a Cultural Quiz to make me, and what I say, more relevant to them. First, I quiz them. I asked them questions like, “What is my favorite food?” and “Who is my hero and why?” They have to guess which multiple-choice answer is correct. It’s a fun way for them to learn a little about my cultural self and to see me “as a human, a person who has interests, a past, and a life” (Hunter, 2018, p. 92). Afterward, I give my students a “Cultural Quiz” with the same questions, but they fill in their own multiple-choice answers. This is a fun and efficient way for them to “share their norms, values, and perspectives with me” (ibid). More importantly, I obtain a gold mine of valuable, meaningful, and significant information to use during lessons to attract the attention of the students who are struggling the most. When I see they’re not getting a concept or solving a problem or writing a response, I relate what they’re having difficulty with to something that has purpose or meaning to them.

Think about facts, concepts, and processes that are difficult for you to teach. What information is the hardest for students to retain? How can you attach meaning and purpose to them? Think about the students who “don’t care” and “need to try harder.” How could you (and what you teach) come across as being more relevant?

Make It Memorable to Boost Comprehension

The easiest way to make lessons memorable is to simply say students’ names randomly throughout our lectures (paying mind to mention them all a fairly equal number of times). It perks them up, gets them to refocus or feel involved.

Children and teens who struggle to remember academic, behavioral, and social skills benefit from instructors, tutors, coaches, counselors, mentors, and parents who teach them in a memorable way. One effective way is to engage students who have poor working or short-term memory at specific times during our lessons. For example, we can ask students questions regarding lower-level (and prerequisite skills) during lessons. This gets them involved and warms them up to learning new information. Involving students and reviewing skills needed for what they are about to learn, gets their attention, and activates their prior knowledge. This way they can link the newly learned information to info they can relate to.

Think about an abstract concept that has been difficult for your students to understand. How could you activate prerequisite and fundamental skills? What connections can you make? What questions could you ask to help them relate what they know with what they are learning?

We can also make key lessons memorable by using an abundance of visuals. We could also give students worksheets that are graphically organized by topic with sections for students to take notes during lessons. Students can use them to reference during difficult assignments.

Are there ways you can make an assignment more graphically organized, so students can see key information and use it as a reference? What student-made visuals could they create to help them to reference key information (vocabulary, formulas, dates, processes) to study?

During lectures, teachers can relay certain lessons in a story format. It’s easy to see how History teachers could do this, but so could instructors of Science, Foreign Language, etc.

The sequencing of events can confuse a lot of students. For example, students confuse the American Revolution with the Civil War all the time. But if we teach the events in chronological order, use visuals, and post them on a timeline in the classroom. We can also post student-made and teacher-made visuals in the classroom. Students are much more likely to work through their confusions as we keep referencing and pointing to the timeline and other visuals.

What stories could you tell? When the curriculum forces you to teach in a fragmented order, how can you fill in details, so it’s in sequential or chronological order? What visuals or timelines could you or the students create and post in the classroom or on a website?

Make Mental Impressions Using Colors

Another way to make a mental impression on our students’ brains is to use color. When we use a different color it directs our students’ attention. For example, if we go over key vocabulary words using a contrasting color it makes the words stand out. If an Algebra teacher uses coloring for variables, it can direct a student’s mental focus on what’s happening to the coefficients and variables when solving an equation. That would not only make an impression, but it would also draw their attention to similarities, differences, and other significant information they are learning.

One caveat of using color is to be consistent in how you use it. For example, if you’re using color to teach slope-intercept form (y = m x + b), be consistent and use the same coloration for all problems. I use the same color-coding when showing students how to put equations in slope-intercept form. Students can distinguish how the coefficients and variables are manipulated and end up in the correct order. A science teacher could use different colors for protons, neutrons, and electrons when illustrating ionic and covalent bonds. Foreign Language teachers could have students incorporate color in their flashcards. For instance, in Spanish the -ar verbs could be one color, -er verbs another color, and -ir another.

What mistakes do your students frequently make? How and when could you use color to make an impression on your students? What do you want to draw their attention to? A change, similarity, difference, rule, or principle? How can you be consistent when using coloration?

Check to Make Sure They Comprehend

During lessons, some teachers may describe a concept or how to do an assignment but may feel that certain students just won’t get it, no matter what they do. For teachers who feel this way, it’s important to plan how we will check to see if all of our students comprehended and did not learn it wrong.

Each time I introduced a new concept to my 6th grade Math students, I gave each one a dry erase board. During my lesson, I would ask them questions and they all would hold their boards to show me their answers. I could see their answers, but their classmates could not easily see. In this way, I offered guided practice that checked for their understanding. Most importantly, I provided immediate feedback and explanations to the class again, making subtle eye contact with those who did not get it. Guided practice, checking for understanding, and providing immediate feedback prevents students from making mistakes during the next step, independent practice. Students should be given the opportunity to independently work on some of the problems during class and then as homework.

Think about how you could check to see if specific students are comprehending as your teaching your lesson. How could you find out who they are without embarrassing them? How will you correct them so they do not get embarrassed? How could you observe students practice their newly learned skill(s) and offer immediate feedback so students do not learn incorrectly?

Provide Multiple Exposures

Perhaps one of the most effective methods we can use to help our students retain information is to provide multiple exposures to key facts, concepts, and processes. As teachers, we can help our students retain information for tests and writing assignments by providing them with multiple exposures to the same material, taking care to do the following during each exposure:

First Exposure – The Lesson
Make sure the lesson is relevant. Don’t forget to ask questions to engage students and tap into prerequisite skills, use visuals, tell stories when possible, provide opportunities for students to take notes and create visuals, use color to draw students’ attention to key information, check for comprehension and understanding, and provide immediate feedback to prevent students from learning it wrong and confirm that they are learning it correctly and accurately.
Second Exposure – The Assignment
Every student benefits when they are given the opportunity to correct key assignments leading up to tests. This should cue students to ask for help from a trusted study buddy or to go to tutoring if they do not understand why they made errors. Many students feel shame and won’t. Those students need to hear us say, “We’re human, which means we learn best from our mistakes. The pain we feel will actually help us remember, so we’ll be less likely to make the same mistakes over and over.”
Third Exposure – The Test Review
When we present new information, order matters. It is critical to introduce fundamental or prerequisite information in the beginning. If we don’t, it’s like telling a joke out of order. Not everyone will get it. Many teachers and parents assume that since students have studied material that they can review it and fragmented order. However, it is just as critical to review material in sequential order from beginning to end. Try to tell a story, if you can. We can also help students retain information by giving our students test review problems, which provide students with additional exposure and practice.
Fourth Exposure – The Test
Fifth Exposure – Test Corrections
Allowing students to receive credit for test corrections provides students with incentive and another exposure and more practice. Corrections can be very effective, so we may need to remind our students again of how we learn best from our mistakes. We can also explain how going over our mistakes forces us to scrutinize information, figure out where we went wrong, make mental notes, and increase our awareness. When we’re given another opportunity to spiral back over concepts, we’re much more likely to retain and recall them. That way when we see the information later for a future test or paper, we will be more likely to remember it.
Sixth Exposure – 6-Weeks Test Review
Seventh Exposure – 6-Weeks Test

Eighth Exposure – Semester Review
Ninth Exposure – Semester Exam
Tenth Exposure – Final or End-of-Course Review
Eleventh Exposure – Final or End-of-Course Exam
Most students with retention challenges will perform well if their teachers use the methods and techniques in this article. However, if you are using the strategies and your students are still failing 6-weeks tests and finals, continue reading to uncover possible reasons why and how you could help.

Find the Roadblocks

Some teachers may feel they just can’t explain anything to certain students. For those students, we really have to ask a series of questions that lead us to why? Is it because we’re not activating their prior knowledge or getting them to connect with the information? Or are we skipping steps, leaving out information, or explaining out of sequence? How can we make what they’re learning more relevant somehow? Did we provide them with plenty of exposures, via correcting key assignments, test reviews, quizzes, and tests? Did we emphasize the importance of learning from our errors so they are not afraid to ask questions or come to tutoring?

In a lot of cases, the roadblock may be that they are weak in a fundamental skill and it is seriously hindering their ability to do what we’re asking them to do. For example, an Algebra teacher who has a student that just can’t understand how to solve equations, it may be because the student is very weak and inaccurate performing computations. The teacher who has a student who can’t do anything involving graphs may discover that the child has visual-spatial processing challenges and never learned how to plot coordinates. Or an English teacher who has a student who scores high in reading, but can’t get the student to write a summary, may discover it’s because the student struggles with spelling and/or handwriting.

After we identify specific roadblocks, then we can try to find ways to remove them by differentiating our instruction. How? We can choose an activity, curriculum, materials, intervention programs, techniques, supports, and/or guidance that are specifically designed for a student to strengthen his or her skills. Here are a few examples. For the student who struggles with computation, they can practice flashcards with a parent volunteer for 15 minutes, two days a week. The student with visual-spatial processing could come to after-school tutoring and watch how you use colored pens to graph coordinate pairs. While students are writing essays, an English teacher could circulate and offer to spell any word for any student. I know a lot of teachers tell students, “Don’t worry about spelling, just get your thoughts on paper.” But, kids do worry, and it jams their thoughts, and it paralyzes their brains. Try my suggestion and offer to spell words, as you walk around. When you’re near the kids who need it, they will appreciate this, and become more productive.

“Honor your child’s or students’ differences by differentiating instruction through activities, curriculum, materials, intervention programs, techniques, supports, and/or guidance” (Hunter, 2017, p. 121). If a child is missing a fundamental skill, how will they ever get it? If not from you, then who? If not now, then when? Who could you ask to help students who have deficits in skills?  How will you communicate the students’ roadblocks to their guardians, so that they can work with their children or get help from a tutor or other sources? How will you respond if a parent becomes defensive?

Make Them Study and Go to Tutoring

The act of memorizing and recalling facts, concepts, and processes causes pain for students with severe working and short-term memory challenges. Most use escape tactics and ask to go to the restroom, school nurse, frequently sharpen their pencil, etc. Some may joke around, cause a distraction, or just physically start moving their bodies. We have to push students through their pain.

The majority of students I teach have learning disabilities. I make them work on their weakest areas and do what they hate the most. And, I have to make them want to come back for more.

I have to help my students take their focus off their pain and on to how choices, decisions, and actions (or lack of) can directly shape our future lives. I explain how where we end up in life is based on a series of decisions and actions we take. In a pinch, a teacher could privately take aside a student, and share something like this:

It’s your future, not mine. I already went to school, made the decisions I needed in order to achieve my dreams, so that I can have the life I want. It’s your turn, You can decide to do what you need to do, or not. It’s your dreams, your life. I can’t make you make the “right” choices. If you want to have a certain kind of life, you will have to make the choices yourself. I know you can do it. Working hard (practicing/studying/being self-disciplined) is difficult. But, when we work hard and make good decisions, we will receive great rewards later in life (Hunter, 2018, p. 73).

When we phrase it this way, it helps attract our students’ attention. It’s one way we can get them to work, even though they’re feeling pain. It helps them find meaning, purpose, and value in learning. Think of a student who is incessantly causing distractions in your classroom. Are the episodes happening during times when you’re asking students to do certain types of activities that are difficult for them? How can you motivate them to improve their areas of weakness? Think of ways you can get them through their pain. How can you get them to refocus and nudge them through the pain to accomplish the tasks you need them to complete?

It’s also important to understand that their undesirable classroom behaviors may be stemming from a trauma they have experienced, such as a divorce, marital tension or abuse, divorce mayhem, transition into a stepfamily, illness in the family, incarcerated family member, substance abuse, etc. I feel that most, if not all, students who have memory problems have suffered traumatic events they would like to forget.

If you’re saying to yourself, “These kids just need to buck up and get over it. I had a trauma in my life and I didn’t let it affect my school.” My response to that is, I’m proud of you. Think of what helped you get through the anxiety and depression? What type of support (a relative, friend, a sport, music) helped you be resilient and get through it?

You may not be able to give that level of support to your students, however, you could help them build resiliency and develop their character. In my book, Cultivating Respect and Cooperation, I offer suggestions on how it could realistically be done in a classroom. Again, you may not be able to do that either, so this is what I ask of you instead – Never give up or write off a student. We truly don’t have all the information. We don’t know what all a student has been, or is going, through. So if we can set aside our judgments, we will be able to focus more of our attention and time on what’s more important, the student before us.

Marijuana, Alcohol, and Diet

Most parents and teenagers are aware of the dangers of alcohol and a poor diet, but there are so many who underestimate the damage marijuana can do to brains under the age of 20. Marijuana has become legal in a few states, so it must be okay, right? Once I’ve worked with a student for a while, we have a goal planning session. Students set goals and fill out a Goal Planning worksheet that can be found in my book, Cultivating Respect and Cooperation. When they get to the questions, “What actions can I take on a daily basis that will help me come closer to reaching my goal? What damaging activities will prevent me from reaching my goal?” I put them on the spot and we have serious discussions about drugs, alcohol, and diet. Since most of us are at a loss for what to say when it comes to talking about marijuana, I thought I’d share some of the things I say to my students:

  • When you are 21, alcohol will be legal. But in the state of Texas, marijuana will not be legal. In states, such as Colorado, do you think anyone can smoke it anywhere anytime? They cannot; it is only allowed to be consumed in the home. People who smoke it outside of their homes can be arrested.
  • Drugs are not legal. Therefore, they are not controlled and can be inconsistent, tampered with, and laced. Drug dealers and their bosses are not known for their character, conscientiousness, and accuracy or attention to detail. So how possible do you think it would it be for any of them to make a mistake or taint a supply?
  • Friends, and maybe even family members, may tell you pot is safe and that it’s no big deal. But the truth is, it alters neural network processing and causes memory problems for teens.
  • I challenge you to not smoke pot and drink alcohol in high school. And if you have, I challenge you to not have any more while you’re in high school. Studies show the later a person waits to consume marijuana (and alcohol), the less impact it has on memory, executive function, and addiction.

Truly, if a teen’s memory and executive functions aren’t the best, then smoking pot is one of the worst things they can do for their brain. Studies show marijuana affects adolescents’ brains differently from adults. Specifically, the younger a person is the more it has long-term effects on their memory and executive functions. (NPR, 2014) “Since higher Δ9-THC concentrations are now dominating the market,23 and given that high prevalence rates exist particularly among teenagers,1,3 its consumption represents a major public health concern” (NCBI, 2013). I plan to write a future article with more information.

Some parents, siblings, uncles, etc. may not know better. Because they are older, pot may not affect their memory (and executive functions) as severely as it affects teens. They may be unknowingly promoting something that hinders our children’s mental health and acuity. If this is the case, it’s not too late to stop and start promoting the value of an education, along with the decisions, choices, and actions it takes to get it.

Many parents worry they will sound like a nag and then their kids won’t listen to them. Teens will always complain about us, parents, so let’s nag to them about the things that are really important. Otherwise, they’ll call us a nag for trivial matters.

Why Should We Use These Methods? Seriously, Why Should We?

Teachers who do not want to improve their art are like artists who do not want to create anything more beautiful than they’ve already created. I understand many teachers have their value systems and preferred methods in place, and they may be resistant to change. However, teachers who refuse to improve their methods and techniques are like engineers who use design flaws that could collapse buildings and harm people. And, they continue to do it because it’s easier or because it’s how it’s always been done (Hunter, 2018, p 152).

If you’re still resistant because you really believe that certain students don’t care or you think they’re not trying hard enough, then how could you use this article to help you motivate those students to care and try harder?

A 75% success rate in mainstream and inclusion classrooms would earn you a “C,” which is 5 points from failing. I hope you hear the call and will join me in helping our children and teens who struggle with poor working and short-term memory so they may become more successful. Because when they are more successful, then so are we.

Collaborate with Parents and Tutors

If you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t have a very good memory, I just had to study and work hard.” If that is the case, think back to teachers or other people in your life. Who helped you come up with tricks to remember? Who and how did someone inspire or motivate you? How can you help your students?

We all aren’t born with the same toolbox. Some of us are missing the glue that makes information stick. Parents, tutors, therapists, counselors, coaches, and mentors who work with students outside of the school domain can offer and provide teachers with valuable information, instruction, and guidance. They know a side to our students outside of the walls of school. It’s a side that teachers may not be aware of, so they can offer insight that may make instructors do more work in the short-term, but they could help alleviate the amount of work in the long-term. But more importantly, our combined efforts can completely alter the future of a child. Really. So teachers, please be receptive, communicate, and collaborate. Provide the information they need in order to help our students become more successful.

Some teachers believe some children are so far from being reached. Have faith and do the very best you can to reach out and connect with your students. “An underperforming student has a higher chance of becoming successful if at least one parent, teacher, tutor, or school administrator consistently reaches out and connects with the student. It would be most effective if all these could come together, but it takes only one…you could be the one who creates the difference” (Hunter, 2018, p. 82).

©2017, 2020 Laurie Hunter

Hunter, L. (2018). Cultivating Respect and Cooperation in the Classroom and at Home: A Step-by-Step Guide for Teachers and Parents. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0997488204/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

Schoeler, T. & Bhattacharyya, S. (2013, January 23). The effect of cannabis use on memory function: an update. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, v 4, 11-27. Retrieved from  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3931635/

Neighmond, P. (2014, March 3). Marijuana may hurt the developing teen brain. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/02/25/282631913/marijuana-may-hurt-the-developing-teen-brain