What was I doing? Where is that thing I need? What do I have to do today?
These are all questions we ask when we don’t remember. Memory affects our ability to do school work. But it also affects our ability to do everyday activities. Often kids with learning challenges and neurodiversity struggle with memory. How can we help our children develop better memories?
Practice with Games
Working on memory skills by playing games is a great choice. For young children, the actual game Memory can be helpful for working on simple functional memory. If your child struggles with this game, set it up with just 10 cards of five matches. Put them mixed up and face down on the table and take turns flipping them over to see what they are. Turn them face down again if they don’t match. If you play with only a few cards be sure to trade turns even if you make a match. As your child learns the game you can gradually increase how many cards you play with.
Rat-a-tat-Cat is another fun game that involves remembering what cards are where. This game has the added bonus of requiring players to add up their scores, so doubles as math practice!
Both of these games are working on simple, visual memory of where you last saw something. As such, it isn’t as complex as the memory required for some games. However, when you want your child to remember where they last saw their shoes, this kind of game is helpful.
Visual memory is why I can close my eyes and picture the grocery list I forgot on the counter. It is also the memory at play with many kinds of flashcards. Flashcards that also have the answer on them, can help some people remember facts because they can picture them.
Learning to Remember
In my Orange level programs, I include a song or nursery rhyme with each lesson. I recommend singing it with your child all week until they memorize it. This is because learning this way works on auditory memory and verbal skills. Most children can learn to recite from memory many little songs and rhymes with simple repetition. They learn them because they are fun.
As kids get older, putting important information in a song or rhyme can make it easier to remember. I’ve taught each of my kids our address by giving it a simple rhythm. If you can clap along to it, it helps your brain retain the information. That, and repeating it often enough for it to stick.
For many people, songs and rhythm help them to recall important information. This is why you can find so many educational resources in song form. We learn to sing the ABCs, not because that is the only way to learn them, but because it is the easiest way to remember them. This kind of memory can help with all kinds of schoolwork. I still use this song that I learned in elementary school to remember the names of all the United States.
Finding Your Stuff
One of the most frustrating things for both kids and parents is not being able to remember where you put things. The truth is our brains sometimes decide that repetitive behaviors, like taking off our shoes, aren’t worth remembering. The brain can realistically only hold so much, so it lets some things go. This is even worse if you are stressed, or thinking about other things when you set something down.
One reason those with ADHD have so much trouble remembering where they put things is that they were not thinking about it when they put the thing down. Their brain was pondering “life, the universe, and everything” and it didn’t bother to note the mundane world they were existing in.
The best solution is to learn your own patterns and create repeatable solutions to common problems. One example of recognizing patterns is realizing you probably take your shoes off in the same few places every time, whether you mean to or not. When looking for my son’s shoes, I know we should look under his computer desk, as it is where he most often sits down after returning home.
Help your child to recognize their own patterns. Maybe their shoes are supposed to live in the closet. But helping them to realize they usually take them off near the door or while sitting in front of the TV will help them find them more often on their own.
Create Good Patterns
The second thing to do is to create a good set of patterns. One way to create a pattern is to create a place that frequently lost items now live. Beside my front door is a tray for shoes and a coat rack. Beyond the shoes and coats, my purse also gets hung up by the door. Creating a place for my purse to live has stopped me from losing it every time I come home. And of course, everyone can find their shoes and jackets if they just put them by the door.
I also have a bowl for keys by the door, so those can be tossed in it, instead of on a random counter or table, where they can not only slide off but get covered up with mail or other clutter. I could just put the keys on the shelf where the bowl sits, but having the bowl there for my keys helps me put them in the same place each time. This bowl is a pewter bowl I was given as a wedding gift and it took me several years to figure out how to use it. But now I really love having it there near the front door. If your child has small items they need to keep up with, putting a basket, bowl, or special hook to hang them on can help.
Tweak It Until It Works
It isn’t just about creating a pattern but creating a pattern your brain agrees to use. Putting shoes by the door doesn’t necessarily stick if there isn’t a visual clue to remind you to do it, like the shoe tray. And putting a bowl I don’t like in my foyer wouldn’t make me want to use it for my keys. I like the bowl. I like knowing it is there and that it has significance to me other than just a place to put my keys. That good feeling I get from seeing the bowl and interacting with it helps me remember and reinforces the habit.
You may find you need to adjust a pattern so it sticks better. Maybe the shoes need to go on the other side of the door or the coat hooks need to be lower so they are easier for everyone to reach. If the pattern isn’t working, tweak the visual clue or the location to see if that works better.
On the other hand, for personal items like your phone or glasses, creating a habit of always putting those down in the same three places is helpful. I say three because you probably have about three places you spend a chunk of your time in your home, so making a set of habits is easier than trying to have one. Personally, when I take off my glasses in the bedroom, I always put them on my nightstand. In the kitchen, I always lay them on the table. In my office, I always put them beside my computer. Then, I know I can go search those three places and find them when I need them. This system is the hardest to help kids set up, but the truth is that some things can’t have just one place, because we use them too much. Making a plan of “If I’m in this room I do this” and repeating it until it is a habit, helps things go missing far less often.
Memory is actually very complicated, and being able to recall facts or events is even more complicated. To help your child do better at that, ask them to tell you about things they have done. Ask Who, What, Where, and When questions to help them work on recalling details. Memory has two steps, being able to put something into your brain and being able to take it back out at will. Remember how we talked about your child’s brain may not bother to remember where their shoes are? Telling them beforehand they need to remember what they do so they can tell you (or another family member) about their day can help. We use scouts as a special activity that kids can go do and come home and tell us about. If your child has play dates or classes without you, those are good times to have them try to remember and tell you about.
The more your practice the better it will be. So, if your child isn’t good at telling you about their adventures the first time, ask follow-up questions and then try again next time.
P.S. Here are the links to the memory games I’ve recommended today.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.
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