A child can have all the IQ in the world, but if he
has a poor working memory, he will struggle to learn. What is this
mysterious working memory and why is it so important? Find out on
today’s Homeschool Heartbeat with HSLDA special needs
consultant Carol Brown.
Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Carol Brown. She’s a
therapist, a learning specialist, and a former homeschool mom—and
one of HSLDA’s special needs consultants. Carol, thanks for being
with us today.
Carol Brown: Oh,
Mike. I appreciate it. It is truly an honor to be able to join you
What is working memory? [0:37]
Mike: So Carol,
our topic this week is working memory. Now, what is working memory and
why is that important?
Carol: You know,
Mike, that is an excellent question. I get asked that all the time
because as parents are seeing challenges with their students, they will
usually tell me that the students have difficulty following multi-step
directions. And when we look at that, it’s an excellent example
of what working memory really is. And working memory is that ability to
hold on to two or more pieces of information and to do something with
it. It also is that ability to be thinking about something and pull
something out of our long-term memory to be able to take it to our
current situation to solve problems and make decisions.
Mike: Well, you
wrote a recent article about working memory and you called it
“the new IQ.” Now what did you mean by that?
have parents call me and they’ll say, “You know, I just had
my student’s IQ tested and I know they’re very smart but
when we looked at the scores, their working memory score was really
And so all the time we’ll see people who we know
have strong intelligence in some different areas, but then as a common
thread you will see challenges in working memory. And so where IQ, a
lot of the times, can look at what someone knows, working memory is
something that people have thought for years that was also just a
static assessment that they would take, and now we know that it’s
actually something that can be strengthened. Because, like I said,
regardless of your IQ score, poor working memory is still going to
result in challenges with learning.
When they do an IQ test, they’re going to look
at four things. They’ll get a score for processing, working
memory, comprehension, and perceptual reasoning. And they’ll look
at those four areas.
Right now I’m finishing up my doctorate in
education at Southern Seminary, and [I] just finished my big research
study, and working with a school with kids with learning challenges.
And so I had to see all their psychological testing beforehand to see
if they qualified to be in the study. Well, one thing that was clear in
the 32 students in our study is they all had low working memory.
Mike: So if a person
has a really, really good memory—let’s say when they see
something, they memorize it—will they have a real high score on
the working memory category?
Carol: Well, there are
a couple different things they’re going to look at, because
there’s going to be auditory working memory, where they’re
going to just hear things. And if that auditory processing is weak, or
there’s difficulty discriminating whether it’s sounds, or
the order of sounds, or they may have difficulty repeating something
they hear, or they may not be able to make pictures in their head when
they hear something. So they hear words, but they’re not able to
hold on to it. So their auditory working memory may be weak, whereas if
someone has a visual representation of something, and they have it in
front of them, and they can visually see it, their visual working
memory may be really strong.
Mike: Yeah. Okay, well
that’d be good to know, of course.
Yeah, and so
that can be challenging for parents and teachers or whoever’s
working with them, because sometimes they’re like, “Well, I
don’t understand, because they can do really well this way, and
this way, something else.” And unfortunately, what has happened
is people will then say, “Well, they’re just this type of
learner.” And so what happens is then they make all these
accommodations and strategies. As you and I both know, that
doesn’t go on with you to college or to life. And so
they’ll just [go], “Oh, I’m just going to teach the
way they learn.” That just doesn’t work long-term.
Symptoms and solutions [5:10]
Mike: Carol, how
can parents tell whether their child needs extra help developing his or
her working memory?
Carol: Well, Mike,
I always say parents know their child better than anyone else. And so
some of the key things that I’ll ask parents is, “Does it
seem like you teach something one day and the next day it’s like
you never taught it?” And I see a lot of heads nodding in the
Or I’ll say, “Do you tell them three
things to go do and they may remember one of them, [or] they may say,
‘Well, wait a minute. You didn’t tell me
that’?” And they may have difficulty with spelling. They
may have difficulty with learning their math facts or they may have
difficulty with reading comprehension. Maybe they get the main idea but
have difficulty holding on to the details.
And so those are just a few things that we’ll
say to pay attention to. More for the college student or if
they’re in a co-op, that’ll be if they have difficulty
listening to a lecture and taking notes and that can be a real
challenge for them. Or difficulty with staying focused with attention.
And a lot of times, unfortunately that gets misdiagnosed as having
ADD/ADHD when it could actually just be poor working memory.
Mike: Well, if the
child’s having a problem in this area, what’s a parent to
that’s when it’s really beneficial to consult with an
educational specialist. You know, as HSLDA members, you have the
benefit of calling myself, Faith, Kristy, or Joyce and talking to
special needs consultants. And that’s when we can sit there and
do some informal checklists to determine where the breakdown is. Is it
with the visual system—in what they’re seeing? Is it with
the auditory system—with what they’re hearing? Is it in
their language system—in how they express themselves? And so then
that’s where we can help pinpoint and see which direction is
going to be best. Is it something as simple [as] “go get a
hearing test or an eye test,” or do we need to sit down and look
at a further evaluation?
But then the next thing we’re always going to
look at is a solution and how to strengthen those challenge areas.
Because I’m not someone who’s going to put a label or a
diagnosis on a student because we all have challenge areas and we all
have strengths—but it’s [about] identifying those
challenges so we can strengthen them.
Games help your child succeed [8:00]
Mike: Carol, what
are some easy and fun ways for parents to help their kids develop
that’s what I get to do all day long and I have the funnest job
in the world—and that is: by playing games! Games are the best
way to develop working memory.
I think what we have to keep in mind is academic
subjects show us where working memory is not working. Where it’s
kind of falling apart, where it’s interfering with learning. And
so instead of pulling out another curriculum where the child’s
heart just sinks because, “Oh no, I can’t learn
this,” we pull out games.
Because to train working memory we can only train the
brain with something that’s known. And so imagine a deck of
playing cards, for example, and where you take out the cards and you
just have the student, “Well, tell me what number you see on the
cards?” Well, all of our kids can do that. And then have them
tell you what color. Well, we only have red and black on a deck of
playing cards. And then have them tell you what suit and whether they
have a heart or a diamond or a club or a spade.
But then it all comes back to what we’ve been
trying to teach our kids all through the beginning, is the ability to
take turns. And that’s how I like to explain working memory with
parents because they can see their child do things. If they’re
just focusing on one thing—“Oh, just a number on the card
or just a color or just a suit”—they’re super fast.
But then we take turns and I’ll ask them, “Hey, tell me the
number of my first card, and then on the next card tell me the color
you see. Now tell me the suit you see.” And then as you keep that
going, I have parents who say, “Wait a minute, I can’t do
this. Wait, what was I supposed to say? The number? Wait, is it the
color next?” And then that’s when I’m like,
“That’s what your working memory is.” And so we take
something that’s really fun and play games with it.
My other favorite game is called “I See
You.” The other day I mentioned in our interview how parents will
say students have a hard time following directions. And it may be
something [like] “You know, I need you to go upstairs and brush
your teeth and put your pajamas on.” And they come back
downstairs and they have their pajamas on but they forgot to brush
their teeth. But I will play the game “I see you.” And so
you just say to your child, “I see you going upstairs, now I see
you putting on your pajamas, then I see you brushing your teeth. What
do you see yourself doing?” And they repeat it back. “Mom,
I see myself going upstairs. Then I see myself putting on my pajamas.
Then I see myself brushing my teeth.” And they do it. And parents
are just amazed. And I hear all the time, “That
But you can do that; you can make up silly things and
make it a game to do as well. I will tell the kids though, “Next
time your mom’s going to the grocery store say, ‘Mom, I see
you picking up some mint chocolate chip ice cream for me, please. What
do you see yourself doing?’”
Mike: Oh, Carol, I
can see that that’ll get the kids attention; that’s great.
Say, are there some resources you’re recommending to help
Carol: You know,
there are probably three that I recommend outside of my own program.
And that is: Erica Warren has a website called Good Sensory Learning,
and then there are two computer games, and while I am not a huge
advocate of computer games, two that I have used would be the games
Jungle Memory by Dr. Tracy Alloway and Ross Alloway, who are just
experts in this field and it has a lot of research behind it. But
it’s not something that I would just say, “Put a child in
front of a game to play, to just do on their own.” Having a
parent sitting there as a coach, as a mediator, is really important.
The other one is BrainWare Safari and Homeschool Buyers Co-op has the
best price on it. Those are the ones that I have personally used and
have seen positive results from.
Making therapy work for you [12:29]
Mike: Carol, tell
us about your son’s learning disabilities. How did you help him
overcome the struggles he faced?
Carol: Well Mike,
my son’s struggles started the day he was born. He was a miracle,
as all children are, but he was premature and had what was called
respiratory distress. And literally it was like God had to breathe for
him those first 13 hours before he was able to get the help he
So we started off in speech therapy, and occupational
therapy, working with specialists from the very beginning. And one
thing that I did, Mike, that I just implore parents to do: every single
therapy that Clayton received, I was present. I was either in the room
physically or in an observation room, because I wanted to learn what
they were doing. Because I knew for the brain to make the connections
that it had to happen seven days a week and not just for that hour a
couple times a week that we went to therapy. And so that was a huge
I also, when he got intensive therapy when he was
about 8 years old, got to know the director of the center, I got
trained in all the therapies that he was doing. And I really found as I
partnered really with the people that we worked with—with the
therapist and the centers—that I was actually interviewing them,
to say, “Are you going to allow me to be a part of this
process?” And if they would, then we had a great working
He continued to make progress, but you know, when he
was a sophomore in high school, despite all the progress, he hit
another road block and actually I needed to pull him out of the
classical school [where] I was headmaster and hire someone to
homeschool him. And we kind of thought we were stuck at that point and
we didn’t see college as an option right then. And so
that’s when I did more training in neuroplasticity and cognitive
development training. And through that he went through some more
therapy, fast-forward, ended up attending Boyce College which is the
undergraduate for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, got a
degree in biblical counseling, and we were thrilled with that.
What was most thrilling, which I did not mention
earlier, was because of his learning struggles he actually didn’t
have language until he was 4 years old. He had a severe language
processing disorder in what he understood and what he could say. And
ironically, he now has the gift of speaking and preaching and teaching
and so we actually have to get out video tapes [of] when he was young
to kind of prove to some of his friends, so to speak, that he really
did have the challenges, because he is just so articulate now and has
even done graduate work. He’s also a therapist at the center that
we have at Equipping Minds.
And so we have been the parents who have cried the
tears, who spend tens of thousands of dollars on therapy, but right now
he would not pass as having learning challenges. And so that has
been—he’ll be 24 in a couple weeks—a 24-year journey
that we’ve been on and it’s been exciting to see how God
has worked in his life.
Mike: Well Carol,
thank you so much for sharing that story. That’s tremendously
inspiring for us.
Equipping minds to thrive [16:22]
Mike: Tell us
about your Equipping Minds program. How did you get started and
what’s the purpose of it?
Carol: Mike, Equipping Minds started in 2009. I had stepped
out of private school administration to really focus on helping
students like our son, like Clayton, who were having challenges, not
really reaching that full potential and were kind of coming to a
crashing halt, like with high school and some frustrations. And so what
I saw is as effective and great a teacher could be, that it was really
the student’s mind that we needed to focus on. And that’s
when we started taking really a holistic approach in how we worked with
Now, ironically, before we got on this call today I
was working with a young girl with Down syndrome. What we found with
Equipping Minds is that it’s not just for kids like Clayton, it
is for students with neurodevelopmental delays like Down syndrome or
fetal alcohol syndrome or people who experience a traumatic brain
injury, autism, ADHD, dyslexia. But, in fact, believe it or not, we
have even trained Toyota executives. We’ve worked with senior
adults to help prevent dementia, and people who’ve had PTSD. And
so, many adopted students are clients that we work with.
And the real purpose of Equipping Minds as well is
that it’s threefold. We actually work with families on Skype, and
if you’re an HSLDA family then I do complimentary time with you
to help assess what’s going to be best. So we can work with
families doing therapy on Skype. We work with missionary families in
over 20 countries and families around the U.S. But then we also have
our program in a workbook in a workshop that’s home-based, so
many of our homeschool families are actually purchasing that because we
are developing those cognitive foundations for learning. And so, when
we say “equipping minds,” we’re talking about
equipping the minds of parents to actually be the ones helping their
child and equipping the student’s mind as well to reach the full
potential that God has.
Mike: Carol, what a great week this has been. This has been
so inspiring and I know it’s going to be helpful to our listeners
and so thank you very much and until next time, I’m Mike