Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity

Posted by Erica Warren on

Mindfulness-based approaches to learning are attracting more and more teachers, therapists and school administrators. Mindfulness refers to being completely in touch with and aware of the present moment, as well as taking a non-evaluative and non-judgmental approach to one's inner experience. These methods are helping students, as well as their teachers, learn how to manage and minimize stress, become active engaged participants, enhance memory and learning, improve classroom climates, and even develop supportive communities. Mindfulness-based programs empower students to self-regulate, develop emotional intelligence, and gain a sense of control over both their minds and bodies.
Mindfulness helps working memory

What's Happening in the Classroom?

Classrooms today are faced with endless distractions including electronic devices, competitive classroom environments, ever-increasing administrative expectations, and both real and virtual violence. What’s more, competing diversions bombard learners, even when they are at home. This high-pressure lifestyle creates, for many, a “fight-flight-freeze response,” making learning uncomfortable and arduous. Additionally, when the limbic system is triggered, it is challenging to activate the prefrontal cortex and encode as well as process new information. However, the research now supports that neuroplasticity allows learners to make measurable changes in the way the minds functions at any age, but especially during the school age years. So helping students learn to manage their bodies and minds with developmentally appropriate mindfulness based practices, can make a significant difference in the lives of students and teachers, while helping to rehabilitate education as the whole (Mindfulness and Learning, 2016).
What is working memory?

A holistic approach to cognitive, social, and emotional development is also supported in neuroscience. Recent research shows that the prefrontal cortex, which manages higher-level cognition, also plays an important role in processing and regulating emotion. Therefore, learning involves both a cognitive and affective schema. “This evidence has forced us to rethink the relationship between reason and emotion. Not only does academic learning depend on social and emotional skills, but it is virtually impossible to disentangle the two" (Barseghian, 2016).

Although this may seem to be a new approach, monks and meditation proponents have long advocated the value of mindfulness, and clinical evidence supports this assertion. In fact, recent research suggests that mindfulness training can prevent the deterioration of working memory during periods of high stress (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong and Gelfand, 2019), enhance attention (Brefczynski-Lewis. Lutz, Schaefer, Lenvinson, & Davidson, 2007), increase backwards sequential processing of numbers (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2007), improve visuospatial processing efficiency (Kozhevnikov, Louchakova, Jpsopovic, & Motes, 2009), and can even be used to treat medical conditions (Mindfulness Practices May Help Treat Many Health Conditions)

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is a core executive functioning skill that is responsible for the temporary holding, processing, and manipulation of information. It is an important process for reasoning and guides decision making and behavior. Working memory also enables one to remember and use relevant information to complete activities. Often described as a mental workspace, working memory helps students attend to the immediate experience, access prior knowledge, solve problems in their head, and meet current goals. The process of working memory involves the conscious awareness of sensory input, while simultaneously pulling relevant knowledge from long term memory and mentally manipulating all this information with one’s inner voice and inner visualizations (See image below).
Facts about working memory

How Does a Weak Working Memory Impact Learning?

Working memory difficulties affect:
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mental math
  • Understanding social interactions
  • Completing homework
  • Planning and preparing for activities
  • Solving multi-step directions
  • Writing essays and reports
  • Following a conversation
  • Test preparation
  • Turning in homework
  • Following and participating in group discussions
Working Memory Workshop

    What are Some Key Symptoms of Working Memory Difficulties?

    • Troubles comprehending a story or directions
    • Difficulties memorizing facts
    • Problems making and keeping friends
    • Difficulties self-initiating or starting homework
    • Forgets needed materials at home and at school
    • Fails to complete work
    • Struggles with organizing ideas when writing
    • Makes irrelevant comments and often tries to change the topic of discussion
    • Difficulties maintaining focus
    • Misplaces things like pencils, notebooks, and agendas
    • Leaves assignments and test preparation to the last minute.

    So What Can We Do to Nurture a Mindful Classroom Environment?

    1. Practice mindfulness in your own life, so you can demonstrate this approach and set an example for your students.
    2. Define and discuss mindfulness with your students.

    Ready Made Materials:

    Dr. Warren's Multisensory Brain Break Meditations offers a multisensory format to help elementary and middle school students learn mindful breath meditations and self-regulation approaches that calms the mind, activates both hemispheres of the brain, and gets the body in optimal shape for learning.
    Dr. Warren’s Mindfulness Activity Cards were created based on the current research on working memory, and they can be used in classrooms or therapeutic sessions to help enhance working memory capacity and build community. In addition, they can be used to teach authentic dialogue and develop emotional intelligence. They are ideal for individual sessions, circle groups, and classroom discussions. To view all of the social emotional products on Good Sensory Learning, CLICK HERE.

     Cheers, Dr. Erica Warren

    Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.

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