Effective Memory Strategies for Special Needs Children: The Ultimate Guide

How many times have you heard the words ”I forgot!” when it came to a child following directions, remembering to turn in an assignment, or when she started out to do something and ended up doing something totally unrelated, at least to your way of thinking?

This can be especially frustrating when this same child can easily remember the words to all the popular songs, can quote movies perfectly, or reminds you over and over again that you said you would do something.

You might think to yourself that they simply didn’t want to do what was asked of them or that they weren’t paying attention. In some cases, you may be correct, but if your child has a learning disability, there could be a real issue with memory.

In their book Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide, S.E. Gathercole, and T. P. Alloway, two psychologists, state that approximately seventy percent of children with learning differences in reading score very low in assessments of working memory. This also carries over into other areas such as math.

To understand how to help children with memory issues, it is important to understand the differences between working and long-term memory.

Long-Term Versus Working Memory

Working memory is also known as short-term memory. This is where the data you receive first goes. Here, children keep in mind information on the steps to completing something, whether a problem or an action. It is where the material you just read can be found.

After a time, if the information is considered important to the brain, it moves to long-term memory. This is where information that needs to be retrieved at a future date is kept, such as formulas for completing a math problem, the order of historical events, or what role adverbs and adjectives play in a sentence.

The two areas have to work together effectively for learning to take place. For example, you are trying to teach a child how the elements combine to form things like water and carbon dioxide.

These new combinations are in working memory because you just wrote them down. However, you covered individual elements a week or two ago. The child needs to retrieve the information that O stands for Oxygen and C for Carbon, or he won’t be able to remember the new symbols. This information is in his long-term memory.

Issues with memory can occur in either area. Having a full memory assessment is the best way to determine whether there is a memory issue and in what part of the memory process that issue may be occurring. However, there are some quick ways to help a teacher or parent get a general idea.

Working memory issues will cause problems such as forgetting steps, or not remembering everything the child has been asked to do. They may be asked to bring you some paper, a pencil, some scissors, and a stapler. When the child returns, he may have a sheet of paper and the stapler but may have forgotten the other two items. Or, he may substitute one of the items with something such as a roll of tape because he forgot exactly what you wanted and tried to “guess” in order to comply.

A child with this problem may not be able to repeat back to you what you just said to her, or she may be unable to tell you the main idea of what she just read. This is the child that will go to the kitchen to get some water, pass the bathroom and make a stop, and return to the living room without the water because it was completely forgotten about.

Long-term memory issues will show themselves in a child being able to explain to you what they learned today but forgetting it by the time a test is given. This child may find it extremely difficult to remember names and dates or remember the rules of grammar.

Children who experience test anxiety often find themselves having issues with retrieving the information they have previously known well. They often can give a general overview but will forget the smaller details. Regardless of the area that the memory issue is occurring in, there are some learning strategies that can help make memory better.

Effective Memory Strategies for Special Needs Students

The following are strategies teachers can employ to assist children struggling with long and short-term memory retention:


Mnemonics is a learning strategy where students associate familiar words, rhyming words or phrases, or songs with terms they’re struggling to remember. Listed below are common mnemonic devices:

  • The ABC song popular among young children learning to read
  • before E except after C
  • FANBOYS to remember the 7 coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

Rote Practice Exercises

Repetition is one of the best ways to learn and retain new information, so teachers should constantly review concepts with students struggling with memory loss problems.

Teachers can create drills students can complete on their own, or conduct drills with the entire class. Whatever strategies teachers employ, if they repetitively review curriculum in their classrooms, students will retain more information.

Hands-on learning

After students become familiar with a concept, they can further their knowledge through hands-on learning. For example, students can learn about an insect and then conduct a dissection to study its anatomy. Students can also learn about a historical event that occurred in their community and then tour a historical site associated with it.

Go Slowly

One of the best things you can do to help with memory is to take your time and present information as slowly as possible. Give the child time to fully process a small chunk of information before you add onto it. This may mean having to review the material several times before moving forward, but getting that information to find a place in the long-term memory will help greatly. Much of what we teach children is based on previously learned concepts. This is especially true with math.

Use Multiple Formats

We know that children have different learning styles. Try presenting the same information in as many formats as possible to increase the chances of retention. Use vocal cues by talking, write on paper or the board, use pictures and other visuals that are related to the material, and think of other ways that you can present the same material.

Reading material can be accompanied by a recording of the material that a child can read along with, for example, or you could have them draw a picture that explains what they just read.

Include Handouts

Before you start a lesson, provide the child with handouts that will allow him to take notes under the key points you list. The handout can provide a general outline she can refer back to later, can give examples of the subject matter, or can provide a visual presentation to your audio one. Keep the handouts clear and easy to read. Provide plenty of space for note taking.

Teach Active Reading

There is something about reading with a pen or highlighter in your hand that helps you retain the information you are reading. Make it possible for the child to write keywords or points in the margin, highlight certain sentences or words and write questions.

It also helps to ask text-related questions that require going back over the text. This requires greater focus and a repeat of the information. It also helps the student understand what the key points of the reading material are./

Use Acronyms

Acronyms are words that are made up of the first letters of a set of words. For example, HOMES can help a child remember the names of the Great Lakes – Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. The one word will help push a trigger in the long-term memory that can make it easier to recall the information.

Another common one that helps children remember the way directions go is to teach them the phrase “Never Eat Shredded Wheat.” The first letter of each word stands for a direction going clockwise – North, East, South, West. The sentence doesn’t even have to make sense. In fact, the sillier it sounds, the more likely the child will be to remember what it stands for.

Make Learning Active

Allowing a child to be active while learning can help reinforce concepts. While teaching the alphabet, let him draw the letters in sand. Act out a scene that describes an historical event. Use manipulatives to illustrate math problems.

The act of using her hands will help the information reach her brain through two different pathways. The greater the number of pathways the information takes to get into the brain, the greater number of retrieval routes there are for it to be remembered.

Use Music or Rhyme

Rhythm and rhyme have always been used to help remember concepts. Think about hearing a particular song. After a couple of times, it becomes difficult to get a catchy one out of your mind. This concept was used in the popular Schoolhouse Rock series that was broadcast from 1973 to 1996. This series used short tunes to explain history, science, math, English, and more. As adults of forty and fifty years old, we can still remember the words to things like “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction”. The short videos were often played between cartoons on Saturday morning, and they offered a catchy tune and cute video sandwiched between fun. This proved to be a perfect combination for learning, and remembering.

Use Lists

Lists can be used to make sure a number of steps are followed in order, a group of tasks are completed completely, or a child remembers everything he needs to take to school or home. These lists can be actual words or pictures that demonstrate what is needed. This allows a child to check off each item as it is completed. Over time and with repetition, the information finds its way into the long-term memory and sometimes just seeing the first item will help trigger recall of the rest of the information.

Use Stories

Remembering a complete storyline is much easier than a boring list of facts. If you can somehow include the child or people and objects the child is familiar with in the story, it is likely to be even more memorable. Instead of saying that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, talk about a little boy named George who had a brand-new axe and was looking for something to try it out on.

Bring emotion and humor into the story. Let them draw pictures of the young boy and the tree. Talk about how badly he felt and how hard it was to admit he did it. Relate it to something that may have happened recently in the child’s life that had him scared about getting in trouble. It will be something that the child finds more difficult to forget.

Make It a Game

If you can find a way to make a game out of the material it will make learning it easier. A game will be fun and this takes stress out of the learning process. Try creating a mock Wheel of Fortune game to work with spelling, a match game where one set of a pair has an equation on it and the other the answer, or a scavenger hunt for items that are related to a certain country or historical event. Fun things tend to stick better in memory.

Relate to Real Life

Being able to relate the things being learned to events the child is already familiar with will help. Instead of repeating the same math problems, go on a trip to the grocery store and try figuring out how many cans of beans you can buy for a certain amount of money. Visit a beach to explain things like the tide or how rocks are formed. Let the child see and understand how the material relates to her everyday life.

Give Less Work

Often we overestimate how much a child can handle. A large pack of papers, even if they are to be completed over the week, can be intimidating. Try breaking assignments down into small chunks that are easily digestible. Give only one sheet of problems, one page of reading, or only one English concept, such as nouns instead of both nouns and pronouns, at a time. Being able to concentrate on only a small concept increases the chances of memory success.

Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers allow the child to see how concepts relate to each other. This increases the chance of remembering because there end up being several different triggering concepts. Venn diagrams work great at comparing and contrasting two or more items.

A cause/effect chart where the event is listed in the middle and columns on the left show cause and the right show effect will allow the child to break down the information into individual items, making retention greater.

More complex subjects can be illustrated with cycle diagrams. For example, show a puddle and then an arrow to another picture of the Sun shining and water droplets rising up into the clouds. The next picture can show the clouds getting fuller and the following one shows rain bursting from the clouds. The final picture can then show the puddle again. This helps the child visualize how rain develops.

Use Association

This is the concept that is taking place when many teachers ask students to use their spelling words in a sentence. By creating a sentence that tells the concept or word in a different way, you are allowing the child’s brain to receive the information twice. When it is the child that has to find the way to reword something, more parts of the brain become active, making the material more prominent in memory.

Encourage Over-Learning

Often we allow a child to stop practicing things after they have managed to go through the material perfectly one time. Make it a habit to have the child demonstrate they have mastered the material at least three times over several days before you consider it completely learned. This allows the information to firmly implant itself in the long-term memory and allows you to know the child is able to retrieve that information when asked.

Encourage them to keep up this practice with all new concepts so it becomes a habit over time. This will help them learn to start taking control of their own memory making.

Let the Child Teach You

One of the best ways to keep something in your memory is to tell it to someone else. Have your child tell you what they learned. Be active in your listening, comment, ask for details without seeming like you are correcting and just let him tell you. If it requires a concept like math, let him pretend you don’t know how to do the problem and switch roles, letting him be the teacher and you the student.

The more he goes over the material, the greater the chances of retention and retrieval will be. This process allows her to gain confidence and feel less stress over the material and it gives you the chance to evaluate how well the material is being learned and where it may need more reinforcement. This all happens in a fun scenario that makes it more memorable.


No one strategy is going to work with every child so the more ideas you can incorporate into teaching, the better. As parents, you will learn over time what works best for your individual child. As teachers, making the classroom a place that incorporates many of the strategies will increase your chances of meeting the needs of more of your students.

Knowing the ways to deal with memory issues can help reduce the frustration that comes when you feel a child is simply not listening. It will also help reduce the stress a child feels when he knows he is trying and the information just doesn’t “stick”.

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