Memory For Learning

Is your child forgetting information learned in school?

Is your child:

  • Having trouble with spelling words?
  • Forgetting multiplication facts?
  • Remembering the night before but forgetting everything on the test?
  • Working very hard academically but not retaining information?
  • Studying diligently but testing poorly on standardized assessments?
  • Seeming to learn more slowly than other children despite other strengths?
  • Performing great on science projects but forgetting facts for a test?
  • Better at learning when you show her but struggling with what you tell her?


Perhaps you have worked on multiplication facts for years. You have used flashcards, counted out jelly beans and M&Ms, drawn figures in the sand, and made up songs for those multiplication tables, but the facts just aren’t sticking.

Sometimes, children really struggle to remember information if they are not able to find meaning in it or to link it to background knowledge.

Facts seem isolated and unrelated, slipping away like grains of sand.

Even after regular practice and constant rehearsal, your child may score lower than you expect on tests.

Sometimes memory problems translate to other areas of life. Your child may often forget what you’ve told him to do. You may feel like a nag, asking your child over and over to do things, but then realizing your child simply forgot what you said.

Some children are great at reading comprehension, but they cannot spell. It may be easy for your child to make sense of a story that includes characters and a meaningful plot, but recalling a sequence of letters could be very challenging.

Maybe your child learns multiplication slowly and has to refer to the laminated facts table on his desk, but he may excel in other areas, like art or music, in which learning is more visual and kinesthetic.

Children have different learning styles. For many children, it can be hard to make learning meaningful and therefore memorable. A visual or kinesthetic learner will appreciate active learning to aide in the encoding of new information.

Improving memory for learning may require a more creative approach for some children than for others.


Clinically, the underlying problem for challenges with memory for learning could be related to processing speed, learning styles, learning disabilities or attention challenges.

Processing speed refers to how quickly an individual processes information. If someone processes slowly, it takes longer to learn new information and longer to make connections between new information and information already understood. Perhaps your child is just unable to learn and retain information at the rate at which it is presented in school.

Learning styles refers to the modality by which a child is likely to best understand and remember information.

Some children learn by hearing information. You might hear the child say, “I hear you” when they understand something. These children are auditory learners.

Others learn by watching something and then trying it themselves.

They learn best when they are moving and doing. You might hear an adult or older child say, “that’s hard for me to get my hands around” or “let me try to grasp that.” We call these learners active or kinesthetic learners.

Some children learn from pictures and solve visual puzzles with ease.

They learn just fine if they see the problem on paper. They might be heard describing their ‘aha moments’ like this, ‘Oh, now I see!’ or “I can picture that.” Kids who learn like this are called visual learners.

Challenges with memory could have to do with the teaching style or modality and the child’s ability to make meaning of the information. A child who is better at reading comprehension may be successfully hearing a story, understanding the information, and relating it to prior learning.

This strategy is harder to use with spelling words. It is possible to learn broad rules of spelling and to recall when to double a vowel or to add a silent “e”.

Learning spelling may take more time and teaching because the information is rote, factual and not easily relatable to background knowledge. When we think about learning challenges, we find that some learners have a deficit in a particular mode of learning. Before deciding your child has a disability, try different learning strategies, and see what learning style works best.

Learning disabilities are innate brain differences that make it more difficult to understand and to remember information in a certain subject. Learning disabilities are evident when a child has challenges with certain learning areas (math for example) with co-occurring strengths in other areas (language for example).

Often, very bright children have learning disabilities. A child with a learning disability may excel in language and have an excellent vocabulary but spell or write very poorly. He or she may read well but struggle with geography.

Processing deficits often underlie learning disabilities. Some children process information provided in an auditory format (spoken information) but struggle to make heads or tails of a chart or graph in the science textbook.

If your child’s learning is inconsistent, from day-to-day or subject-to-subject, a processing deficit might be the problem.

What’s happening in the brain? The hippocampus is the part of our brain devoted to learning and memory, while the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) handles attention by taking information in initially and then planning and organizing that information. Children need to get that information in through the PFC and then need to store it with the help of the hippocampus.

Challenges with these memory processes may be related to a learning disability like dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia.

Attention challenges can impact a child’s memory. Learning math facts can be boring for some children. If these children struggle to focus, it will be even harder for them to learn this information. Children with attention challenges do best when they are engaged in learning and relating information to something they like and already understand.

In this case, the child may find that listening to information in an auditory format leads to daydreaming and distraction. Often, children with ADHD respond well to a mix of learning approaches that incorporate active learning. The child may enjoy doing a science experiment, using math to build something, or acting out a skit derived from spelling words.


One reason for your child’s challenges could be difficulty converting short-term memory to long-term memory and storage. A child who can cram information and retain it very briefly; perhaps even long enough for that weekly spelling test, but who then fails to actually retain the information later could be struggling with long-term memory and storage.

Short-term memory is where we store information as we learn it. Then, by practicing and rehearsing in the short-term, we are working to move information to long-term memory. In order to remember information long term, we need to make meaning of it.

Cramming may not work for many children. Taking the information in too fast with too little practice may lead to immediate availability but not to the proper storage of the information in the long-term. Studying over a longer period, a bit each day, can really help some children and adults to retain more information. In psychology, we call this ‘mass practice’ vs. ‘distributed practice.’

The research is clear. Distributed practice (a little at a time) is far superior to mass practice (‘cramming’). The ultimate goal is to get the important information into long-term memory so that it becomes part of the knowledge base. When we store information in long-term memory, we can then build on it with new knowledge and learning.

Therefore, repetition and distributed practice are critical to help your child remember information for school.

Multi-sensory learning strategies can also be a huge help. Make up songs, write multiplication facts in the sand, and draw the states and their capitols in chalk on the driveway.

Make learning meaningful. Help your child relate new information to what he or she already knows. This process is challenging, particularly with very rote information like spelling facts or multiplication tables. Use multiplication to bake a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe by selecting a times table to work on and then adding in the chocolate chips in multiples of that times table.

Using a whiteboard, write the words in huge letters to increase gross motor activity while writing. Make funny songs or stories with spelling words, and act out the script you create over and over with your child taking the lead in a play.

When studying state government, visit your state capitol or watch a movie with characters that capture your child’s attention.

Go to the zoo to learn more about animals from Africa or check out a large and engaging picture book of animals at the library.

It may take a lot of creativity to come up with new learning strategies, and some books and articles are referenced in Learn More to help you with memory strategies.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Shifting or sustaining attention (Focusing): difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges remembering the task at hand
  • Perseverating: Challenges changing tasks due to excessive interest or focus on a certain topic. This challenge is common in ASD and can impact a child’s tendency to become distracted
  • Executive Functioning (Organizing): difficulties related to planning, sequencing, organizing information and carrying out a task in a timely manner
  • Depression or general anxiety: being forgetful or distracted could be related to underlying feelings of anxiety or depression. Particularly if memory problems are sudden and a change from typical functioning, emotional symptoms should be considered
  • Processing speed: difficulty with fluency in cognitive processing. A child may not hear or encode information if he or she is processing very slowly. It may be important to provide verbal and visual reminders and to repeat directions, as otherwise he or she may seem to forget.
  • Environmental factors: difficulties within the environment could be affecting your child’s memory such as a lack of sleep, lack of adequate nutrition, traumatic event, or a loud and distracting home-life


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Learning Disabilities (Educationally Identified Disabilities): memory challenges could be due to dysgraphia, dyslexia, dyscalculia or other learning disability. Learning disabilities are processing (thinking and learning) challenges that lead to performance in one or more academic areas that is below grade level and is not consistent with other areas of strength
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): memory challenges could be due to problems with sustaining attention, distractibility, impulsivity, and, at times, slow processing speed that can all impact remembering and carrying out a task
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: memory and learning challenges may stem from difficulty focusing in what is going on in the classroom as restricted interests or behaviors, hyper focus, and challenges with shifting attention are associated with autism
  • Anxiety Disorder: learning and memory can be impacted if anxiety is elevated
  • Depression: memory can be impacted by depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive, and decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable. Depression leads to apathy, checked-out behavior and mood and may lead to poor learning and forgetfulness
  • Intellectual Disability: learning and memory problems can occur in the context of pervasive cognitive and adaptive skill deficits that occur across domains; these deficits make learning very challenging


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat any emotional symptoms that arise and help with memory and organization
  • Executive Functioning Coach/ Tutoring: to help the child work on academic weaknesses and/or work completion, planning and organization; nice to take this role off the parent
  • School Psychologist: to determine learning needs based on the child’s neuropsychological profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan or RTI is warranted to help your child
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to consider possible symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context
  • Psychiatrist: to prescribe and manage psychotropic medication for inattention, impulsivity; stimulant medication for ADHD is effective in a high percentage of children with focus and impulsivity challenges

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • WIAT-III/WJ-IV/GORT-5/TOWL/Key Math: academic assessments in the components of reading, writing, math, and oral language can help us understand learning processes and see the impact of any executive functioning, processing speed or attention deficits on learning (Neuropsychological, Psychological, or School Psychological evaluation)
  • BASC-3, Clinical Interview, Brief Projective Measures: emotional assessment through drawing tasks, open-ended questions, interviews, and rating scales (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: assessment of intellectual abilities, which can help us understand cognitive processing and determine what interventions may work best (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST, TOVA: executive functioning assessment may help to determine the skills and resources a child has, such as the ability to plan, organize, and attend (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • WMS or NEPSY: depending on age (WMS for adults/ NEPSY for children and adolescents), these assessments allow the clinician to look at memory processes including visual and auditory processing
  • ADOS-2: assessment of social and executive functioning in consideration of autism spectrum disorder


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play.


[3] Higbee, Kenneth. (2008) Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it (A book about Mneumonics)


[4] The Learning Journey (Retrieved 2017). Match It! Memory, Spelling.


[5] Flanagan, Dawn P. (2014). Cross-Battery Assessment: A Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses Approach to SLD Identification. St. John’s University, New York Yale Child Study Center, School of Medicine.


[6] Michaelian, Kourken (2013). The Information Effect: Constructive Memory, Testimony, and Epistemic Luck. Synthese 190 (12):2429-2456.


[7] Sousa, David A. (2016) How the Brain Learns


Image Credit:
Description: Tired little girl does homework
Image ID: ##111645872 (Shutterstock)
By: Chirtsova Natalia
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology

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