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Memory and Attention in Children

By Debbie Cluff

What is the relationship between Memory and Attention in the classroom? As a teacher, it is important to maintain the child's attention, but does memory have a co-existence in this field? Attention is seen as being important because, "we do not pay close attention to much of the information to which we are exposed, typically only scant mental processing takes place, and we forget new material almost immediately". If attention is important in retaining our memory, it is important to understand what our memory does and how teachers should understand these patterns and processing levels which determine a child's thought. One might suggest, "The best way to remember new information is to consider it thoroughly when you are first exposed to it-reflecting on how it relates to information that you currently know (Feldman, 2000). A teacher needs to learn how to keep the child's attention in the daily lesson plans and focus on maintaining the child's long-term memory.

Memory is defined as, "the process why which we encode, store, and retrieve information (Fogel, 1991). This means that our students have to process 3 steps in order to remember the information taught in class. The teacher is in need of understanding these steps in order to incorporate memory into their lesson plans. The three main concepts of memory, also referred to as the memory storage systems, are Sensory Memory, first thoughts lasting an instant, Short-Term Memory, information held between fifteen to twenty seconds, and Long-Term Memory, permanent memory (Feldman, 2003). Understanding these three different systems can help a student move the information taught in class from their sensory memory to there long term memory. In order for this to happen a teacher must move the information provided through all three different systems before a students can retain the information to the fullest.

Typically in a classroom, material is presented and the information is remembered or not remembered. Most teachers have not found out the "secret to placing information in their students minds without having them forget it before lunch time. If looked back upon personal classroom experience, one can easily remember a few specific lessons their teachers provided. For example, in 5th grade Ms. Ferrell had the class learn about the world by putting the students in news groups. Each student was to report on a specific topic and they were then video taped. How is this remembered? This project kept the students attention long enough to place this memory in the long-term system. This is how teachers need to incorporate the lessons that are most important to the learning system. "Therefore, it enters memory at a deeper level- and is less pat to be forgotten than information processed at shallower levels (Feldman, 2000).The lessons need to be interesting and captivate the child's attention long enough to provide a specific memory of that lesson plan. "At the deepest level of processing, information is analyzed in terms of its meaning (Feldman, 2000). This is every teacher's dream, the key of processesing and remembering in our students.

A fascinating aspect of child development is memory and how young memory starts to observably work. One way for children, and adults, to strengthen their memory would seemingly be to challenge their memory continuously. An example of memory development would be that of the Rovee-Collier's mobile experiment. In this experiment Rovee- Collier hangs a mobile in a crib and watches to see if the baby responds to this mobile by either kicking his legs or other attention responses. After three minutes of observing the baby with the static mobile, she then attaches a string to the baby's leg and to the mobile. The purpose being that when the baby kicks, the mobile will move. Days later, if the baby kicks upon sight of the mobile, we know that the baby has remembered that kicking produces the desired effect. The infant has already learned the behavior; now he has just proven his memory of this behavior. The study goes on to say that a two month old can remember this for a day; a three month old, over a week; a six month old can remember the desired behavior without having done it for over two weeks. The child's memory is tested at a young age and is able to remember what she has learned. Teachers will need to understand that repetition and challenges are so important and is proven at such a young age in this experiment. This information is hooked into the child's memory and is utilized by the child, his desired behavior. In order for the child to adapt he must rely on his knowledge and memory of how he has dealt with situations in order to achieve the desired outcome (Bee, 2000).

As children get a little older there are many other memory strategies that they are able to use. Some of these strategies are: rehearsal, clustering, elaboration and systematic searching. Some of these strategies are utilized as early as the second year of life. The number of strategies that a child has in his repertoire would seemingly correlate to the amount of information he is able to learn and process. As the child grows he increases the proficiency of these strategies, thereby maximizing the efficiency of his learning. There are a few ways that we can help children to maximize their memories in order to aid in learning. Research shows that when teaching children reading, developing good phonological skills will help students to accurately store and recall words (Dixon, 2002). Most theories about reading acquisition suggest that children must develop an internal dictionary and store all the words they have seen in order to read fluently (Dixon, 2002). Further research reveals that this type of memorization actually makes it more difficult for children to recall words as their vocabularies increase (Dixon, 2002). The idea is that phonics help children to associate words with something else that they can relate to easily making the recollection process easier. There are other studies that show that another way to help children to expand their memories is to tap into their autobiographical memories. This means that memories can be more easily accessed by having children associate information with events that occur in their lives (Wang, 03).

In order to use some of these techniques a teacher must be able to hold the attention of the students in the classroom. The following are a few tips for maintaining attention.

1.Speak with authority and don't be indecisive. A voice of authority is always firm.

2.Bring the class back into focus from distractions by clapping or singing instructions.

3.Turn off the lights.

4.Use a good stare. Silence can shape a noisy class back into attention.

5.Outline and enforce consequences.

(Duebber, 2000).

If the students see that you are serious, they will likely follow your lead.

In the classroom it is so important to learn and understand that memory and a child's attention should be part of the daily lesson plan. A student is best helped if the teacher is educated in all the aspects required to the child's development; memory and attention are an area of that requirement. A child's memory is based on the attention that is given to the lesson plan and the section of the brain that will remember that lesson forever.


Bee, H. (2000). Child and Adolescent Development (9th ed.) [e-text]. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Dixon, M. and Stuart, M. (2002, December) Phonological Awareness improves word recall. Literacy Today, 33, 20.

Duebber, D. (2000, May) Substitute teaching: sink or swim. Educational Leadership, 57, 75.

Feldmen, R. (2000). Essentials of Understanding Psychology (4th ed.). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts.

Folger, A. (1991). Infancy: Infant, Family, and Society (2nd ed.). West Publishing Company: University of Utah.

Wang, Q. (2003, January) Infantile Amnesia reconsidered: a cross-cultural analysis. Memory, 11, 65.

About The Author
Debbie Cluff is the founder and owner of Links for Learning, an online tutoring and instant homework help site for students in Reading, Writing, and Math. Debbie is the mother of 2, with one on the way, and has been married for 5 years. She has her BA in Liberal Studies, her Master's in Education, and is currently in the 1st grade classroom. She can be reached at

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