February 23, 2018


Parents, stop nagging kids not to forget – set visual cues instead.

Children develop the ability to compensate for memory failures only gradually as they get older.

Adam Bulley, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Redshaw, The University of Queensland, and Sam Gilbert, UCL

Every day, we have to remember intentions to perform specific tasks in the future. We may need to remember to buy milk on the way home from work, to return a book to the library next week, or take a certain pill at 8am every day. Psychologists call this “prospective memory”.

This form of memory is notoriously fallible, accounting for 50-80% of our everyday memory problems. To compensate, we often set ourselves reminders in the form of lists or alarms.

Young children can be very forgetful. And no matter how hard we try to get kids to realise they’re going to forget, rarely will they compensate for their memory errors on their own. They may need reminding to make their bed before leaving the house, for instance, or to complete their maths homework before class.

Children develop the ability to compensate for memory failures only gradually as they get older. And it’s not until the late primary school years that they begin to set visual cues as reminders in a strategic way, when they anticipate they are most likely to forget.

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In our recent study, children between the age of seven and 13 played a computer game where they needed to remember to perform either one or three future actions. Then, we gave them the option to set themselves reminders if they wanted to.

When we asked children how they thought they would do in the game, kids of all ages recognised that their performance would be worse when there were more future actions to remember. This is not surprising, as previous research has shown that even children as young as three know longer lists of items are harder to remember than shorter ones.

What was surprising, however, was the fact that only the older children – around age nine and above – set themselves more reminders when they knew their memory would fail them.

One implication is that if you ask young children to do several things, they may struggle to know which things need a reminder and which ones they will remember by themselves. Like adults, kids can set themselves reminders so they don’t forget their chores. 

These results are in line with other research showing that children only begin to compensate for their expected memory failures by around age nine or ten. Although children around six or seven years of age can distinguish between easy and hard items to learn for a memory test, only by around age nine or ten do they actually begin to study hard items more than easy items.

There appears to be a fundamental disconnect between what young children know about their cognitive limitations, and what they actually do to lessen the impact of these limitations.

Together, these results suggest that simply making younger children aware of their likely memory failures – by warning them that they might forget to bring home a note from school, for instance – is unlikely to make any difference to their memory performance. Even younger children are likely to be well aware of their potential memory failures already.

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So instead of nagging younger kids “not to forget”, and trusting the power of the child’s developing memory alone, try to help them “offload” as much of the work as possible.

One way to do this is to create various external reminders that enable memories to be triggered when they are most needed. Placing a timetable of their weekly household chores on their bedroom door, for instance, alleviates their need to remember these actions by themselves.

Once a child is expected to pack his or her own school bag, placing important items in conspicuous locations (such as library books next to the front door) can activate the intention to bring them along.

Recently, psychologists have turned their attention to the various productive ways children and adults can use the external environment like this to “offload” cognitive work, and help bolster performance. Making lists, creating timetables, and placing to-be-remembered items in eye-line are just some examples.

Young children, who are forgetful at the best of times, may be among the most likely to benefit from these offloading strategies if we can help them learn how to use them.

The Conversation
Read more:
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Adam Bulley, PhD Student in Psychology, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Redshaw, Postdoctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland, and Sam Gilbert, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Share your comments below

  • Thanks for posting this info – I think it is good to know some of these issues around children and memory.


  • This is both really interesting and helpful. Thanks.


  • I know parents of a 5 year old who expect their child to be responsible and remember to make sure they have eveything in their bags and don’t think they should need to remind her. She was reminded about an overdue library book. Her school water bottle has an insert that you freeze overnight. She forgot to freeze it so she was given room temperature water in her bottle on a hot day. her parents had forgotten to fill the cold water container that fits into the fridge and has a tap on the outside. I don’t think her dad intended to put cold water in the bottle anyway. Even if the kids put their lunch boxes out every day, they aren’t washed every day.


  • Very interesting and definitely will try visual reminders.


  • Thank you for the intriguing and informative article.


  • My son has Aspergers and processing is an issue for him. He is a visual learner, so for years now we write lists upon lists upon lists for what he needs to do. It works really well for him.


  • Visuals work a treat for most children.


  • I agree this is for us all !


  • I think this applies to all ages, not just children. If you consistently write lists, then you will remember most of it and Alzheimer’s studies show that those who remember the best are the ones who write lists.


  • This might explain why my daughter kept leaving her hat and jacket in the classroom at the end of every day when she was in Year 1.


  • Generally I put a note in my daughter’s lunchbox if she needs to remember to do something important at school. Sometimes she remembers it herself before recess but, if not, when she opens the lunchbox she sees the note and it’s done.


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