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brain with arms and legs juggle rides a unicycleOne of the many ways childhood trauma jeopardizes children’s chances for academic success is the impact it has on working memory. That’s the part of the brain that helps keep information in mind while one is using it. Working memory enhances the brain’s ability to expand its understanding of a topic by embedding new data into an existing framework. This allows children to make meaning of out of new experiences by integrating them into prior knowledge.  Working memory helps children learn to plan ahead by keeping goals in mind, and to avoid distractions that interfere with their ability to complete tasks.

The neural circuitry involved in working memory includes the cortex, the hippocampus, and the para-hippocampal areas of the brain.  These three structures function in an integrated manner to process new information, and eventually store it in long term memory. Myelination increases the speed at which this occurs.

Studies indicate a relationship between reduced hippocampal volume, and a history of early childhood trauma or maltreatment. Changes in myelination that slow down the connectivity between neural circuits also occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to stress (Teicher, 2014, Bergland, 2014). These alterations in neural functioning reduce the processing speed of working memory.  As a result, it is more difficult for children to make associations between relevant stimuli, or integrate new information into existing schemas. Word retrieval and recall are effected as well as the automatic processing of information.

Deficits in working memory decrease children’s ability to stay on task, follow multi-step directions, and working in a goal oriented manner. As a result, children with poor working memories struggle to acquire the skills needed to complete assignments, especially in math and inferential comprehension.

Strategies to try

  • Encourage children to do something with the information they are trying to learn -talk to someone about it, or draw pictures to represent it.
  • Chunk information rather than presenting it all at once.
  • Create picture checklists for steps in a problem, tools needed for specific tasks, etc.
  • Avoid multi-tasking. Instead, focus on one task at a time.
  • Provide access to video games that require navigation through several scenes, or those that involve strategic thinking and problem solving.

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