What is “Scaffolding” and the “ZPD”?

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Chances are, if you work with young children you’ve heard the terms “Scaffolding” and the “Zone of Proximal Development”, or “ZPD”, but you may be a bit hazy on what they actually mean.  Here’s a little refresher!

The term, “Zone of Proximal Development” was coined by Russian psychologist and developmental theorist, Lev Vygotsky.  He posited that a child’s true intelligence should be measured not by what he could do independently (as in standardized testing) but by what he could do with help from an adult or more competent peer (similar to cooperative learning).  The “Zone” refers to the area of growth between what the child can do on his own and his frustration level.  For example, imagine the typical preschooler, who can count 1-10, no problem, but those tricky teens trip her up every time.  (Eleventeen, anyone?)  She can count 10-20 with your help.  That is her ZPD for counting.  Eventually, with your guidance, she will be able to count 10-20 independently.  Working with this child on something like counting by sevens would be far beyond the ZPD, and cause frustration.  Giving too much help with counting 1-10 would be working below the ZPD and would likely cause boredom.  Working within the ZPD is ideal because that is the area where the child is already growing.  To take directly from the term, “proximal”, the ZPD envelopes those skills that the child is “close” to mastering.

Scaffolding is a term that sprung out of the concept of the ZPD.  It refers to the help or guidance from an adult or more competent peer to allow the child to work within the ZPD.  Just as in a building project, the scaffolding is erected to support the building process, but then removed when it is no longer needed.  Parents often hold their toddlers hands as they learn to walk.  That is scaffolding.  You don’t find many parents still trying to steady their five year olds as they walk across the living room.  That is because the scaffolding, when no longer needed, is removed.

In order to properly scaffold a child, you must come to the child’s level and then build from there.  Just as a mason would carefully lay brick, row by row, as he climbs the scaffolding, we must build children gradually as we scaffold.  Simply jumping in and expecting a child to perform at mastery level is like climbing to the top of the scaffolding and dropping bricks down into place at the bottom! When we don’t properly scaffold our children, and hold them to standards above their ZPD, they feel as though every one of those bricks is landing on their heads!

It is important to recognize that the ZPD is very individualized.  While the majority of three year olds may have similar skill levels, each one is at a different individual level on any given skill.

Here’s an example of scaffolding from the Sign in activity.  For some children, simply identifying their names is a task that requires support.  As that task is mastered the child may need encouragement to attempt to write at all, or he may want you to hold his hand as he forms the letters, or he may want a dotted outline to trace, eventually he is writing his name on his own, perhaps with some backwards letters at first, and finally in a conventional manner.  Each step is an accomplishment to be celebrated!  As the child’s ability changes, we change the support we give.

Take some time to think about your own classroom or children.  Choose a skill you are working towards mastery with them.  Assess what you believe the ZPD is for each of your children and break down the task into individual skills that can be scaffolded.  When we properly support our children, they grow both in skill and in confidence!



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