005: How to “scaffold” children’s learning to help them succeed

When I started talking with people about the idea for this podcast, one theme that came up consistently was the idea of supporting our children’s growth and development. A friend of mine summed it up most concisely and articulately by asking “how do I know when to lead and when I should step back and let my daughter lead?”

This episode covers the concept of “scaffolding,” which is a method parents can use to observe and support their children’s development by providing just enough assistance to keep the child in their “Zone of Proximal Development.”

This tool can help you to know you’re providing enough support…but not so much that your child will never learn to be self-sufficient.


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Berk, L.E., & Winsler, A. (1995). Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher 18(4), 32-42.

Courtin (2000). The impact of sign language on the cognitive development of deaf children: The case of theories of mind. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 5,3 266-276. Retrieved from: http://jdsde.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/3/266.full.pdf

Greenough, W.T., Black, J.E., & Wallace, C.S. (1987). Experience and Brain Development. Child Development 58, 539-559. Full article available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/James_Black11/publication/20116762_Experience_and_Brain_Development/links/552b9d830cf21acb091e4d90.pdf

Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2003). Einstein never used flash cards. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Johnson, J.S. & Newport, E.L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational stage on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology 21, 60-99. Full article available at: http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~siegler/JohnsnNewprt89.pdf

Lancy, D.F. (2015). The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

McCarthy, E.M. (1992). Anatomy of a teaching interaction: The components of teaching in the ZPD. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April, San Francisco, CA.

Pratt, M.W., Green, D., MacVicar, J., & Bountrogianni, M. (1992). The mathematical parent: Parental scaffolding, parent style, and learning outcomes in long-division mathematics homework. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 13, 17-34. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/019339739290003Z

Roberts, R.N. & Barnes, M.L. (1992). “Let momma show you how”: Maternal-child interactions and their effects on children’s cognitive performance. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 13, 363-376. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/019339739290036H

Thompson, R.A., & Nelson, C. (2001). Developmental science and the media: Early brain development. American Psychologist 55(1) 5-15. Full article available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12089227_Developmental_Science_and_the_Media_Early_Brain_Development


Read Full Transcript

When I started talking with people about the idea for this podcast series, one theme that came up consistently was the idea of supporting our children’s growth and development. A friend of mine summed it up most concisely and articulately by asking “how do I know when to lead and when I should step back and let my daughter lead?”

I’ve taken quite a journey on my learning on this topic and wanted to share a bit of that with you today. Those of you who are becoming regular listeners will recall that the idea came up in my interview with Professor Tara Callaghan in Episode 4, related to developing creativity and artistic ability in young children. She talked about a process of “scaffolding” children’s learning and we’ll dive a lot more into that today.

So there are three theorists on this topic whose work I want to discuss briefly. One of the main child development theorists that a lot of people have heard of is Jean Piaget, who was born in Switzerland in 1896 and died in 1980. Piaget believed that children pass through four stages of development that are pretty much biologically determined; physical brain development has to happen first and then learning follows.  Piaget’s approach to child development was very popular in the U.S. for many years but a lot of researchers now regard it as incomplete and flawed for several reasons; firstly because most of his theories were developed through detailed observations of his own three children (bit of a small sample that isn’t really representative of a larger population). Research has shown that children don’t automatically move to the next stage of development when one stage is “completed” like Piaget thought – the environment has a role too. Piaget also tended to think children didn’t mature until much later than we now believe is true.

Another famous theorist is B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist who was born in 1904 and died in 1990 (I was actually surprised at how recently these guys were still alive!). Skinner’s approach was called “radical behaviorism” because he thought there was no such thing as free will; we make decisions in response to external stimuli – thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions don’t determine a person’s behavior. Stimulus in = response out. Train child > child develops. Simple as that. There have been many criticisms of behaviorism, with a variety of theorists coming from different perspectives who don’t believe the brain is a black box in which nothing really happens. Yet many of common practices used in parenting and in schools are based on behaviorist principles (e.g. “good job,” stickers, time outs).

Finally, there’s a third theorist named Lev Vygotsky, who was born in Russia in 1896. He died of tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 37 leaving a great deal of his work unfinished, but he still had time to make some major contributions to our understanding of child development. In contrast to both Piaget and Skinner, Vygotsky believed that learning plays a major role in development – learning actually leads development (so, the brain’s structure changes in response to learning) as children receive instruction from adults or even from more experienced peers.

Vygotsky had two ideas that are really central to the way I and many other people today think about child development – the first of these is the Zone of Proximal Development, and the second is called “scaffolding.” We’ll dig more deeply into both of those.

Firstly the Zone of Proximal Development, which Vygotsky defines as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” Sounds complicated, but it’s easiest if you try to visualize it as a horizontal line broken up into three equal sections in your mind’s eye, using an example I’ll give you. My two year-old daughter Carys has a set of ten cuboid-shaped crayons that fit in a cardboard box that goes inside a second cardboard sleeve. The crayons only fit in the box one way and from about age 15 to 19 months she would tip all the crayons out of the box and try to put them back, but she *could not* figure out how to get them back in. Now her skill at getting the crayons out of the box were over in the left third of your horizontal bar, which represents her ability to do something without the help of others. When she was six months old she might have needed my help to get the crayons out but at 15 months she could do that perfectly well independently. In the right third of the horizontal bar is the task that she is NOT able to accomplish even with the help of someone more knowledgeable, which is to put all ten crayons in the box in the one way they will fit when she was 15 months old. Even if I reorganized the crayons she’d already put in the box and asked her to figure out how to put the remaining two or three crayons in, she would usually put one crayon on top of another and try to press it very hard to make it fit in the nearby empty space. So on the left is the task she does well without help, and on the right is the task she cannot do even with help.

Now the middle third of that horizontal bar represents the task that Carys can accomplish with the help of a more knowledgeable person, which could be me or even an older child. At 15 months, if I put nine crayons back in the box leaving one empty space of the right size then she was usually able to figure out how to put the one remaining crayon in the box. That task of putting one crayon in the box was within her zone of proximal development, or ZPD, because she couldn’t get the crayons in the box by herself but she could get that last crayon in the box if I helped her along by putting the rest of the crayons in. Now over time I backed up the level of support, putting fewer and fewer crayons in the box each time before asking her to take over and after several months she was eventually able to put all the crayons in by herself with no support. I should say that this wasn’t a totally linear process; she put the crayons in the box for the first time while we were traveling in Italy (I wasn’t even in the room when she did it; I came back from the kitchen to the living room where she was coloring to find the crayons back in the box!), and sometimes after that she still did need some help when she put the first crayons in the wrong way. But now more often than not she can put them all in without help – and her ZPD has moved on to other tasks.

The process of providing and gradually withdrawing support is called “scaffolding.” Vygotsky says that the child is actively constructing knowledge for herself, but the social environment that I provided in this example is the scaffold, or support system, that helps the child to build new competencies.

Now I should say that this whole ‘scaffolding’ thing is a very “Western” (and I suppose “Russian”, since Vygotsky was Russian) thing.  David Lancy, who is becoming an old friend by now if you’ve been listening to the first few episodes of Your Parenting Mojo, reminds us in his book The Anthropology of Childhood that “In Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD for short) society, parents and adults generally take every opportunity to instruct children, even when they are patently unmotivated or too awkward and immature. The term “scaffolding” may be used to describe the process whereby the would-be teacher provides significant assistance and support so that the novice can complete a task that is otherwise well beyond his grasp. Elaborate scaffolding is rarely seen elsewhere. No one wants to waste time teaching novices who might well learn in time without instruction. Play provides an alternative to adult scaffolding.” I have to think Lancy is being a bit tongue-in-cheek here because, as I already mentioned, someone who in the “teacher” role wouldn’t attempt to scaffold a child who is unmotivated or too awkward or too immature. That would be like trying to scaffold a child who is all the way off on the right of our bar divided into three parts – the task is so far out of the child’s realm of competence that there is no way to bring the child to competence even with assistance. But Lancy’s point remains – that in many cultures scaffolding is neither needed nor used. Instead, children tend to observe and copy their peers and parents in tasks like weaving and making arrows. Guatemalan Mayan parents, for instance, are much less likely to structure learning situations for children – they expect children to take responsibility for their own learning through observation in adult activities. The adults use demonstration and monitoring as tools to help children understand tasks.

Now it has to be said that we aren’t really a weaving and making arrows kind of society. (Well, some of us are – I like to weave and knit.) Isn’t it true that because ours is a more complex society, our children need more help to “make it” in the world?

Professor William Greenough at the University of Illinois helps us out with some more new terminology that’s relevant here: he distinguishes between “experience-expectant behaviors” and “experience-dependent” behaviors. The first one, experience-expectant behaviors, are the kinds of things that are programmed to unfold in our bodies, such as our eyesight, our speech, and our athletic ability. Our brains expect to have the experiences that will develop our eyesight, guide us to use language, and moving our bodies around so the brain grows as it encounters these experiences in the environment. There have been cases where children who were severely deprived of human contact (and we’re talking the kind of deprivation where someone is going to jail here, not because you didn’t buy the My Baby Can Read DVD set) where they are never fully able to make up the skills they weren’t developing in what is known as a sensitive period. And other studies have shown that deaf children of hearing parents can have some cognitive delays that deaf children of deaf parents don’t experience, because they had to go through a period where they weren’t exposed to language being used fluently while their parents learned sign language. But in general, these abilities will develop in children at some point pretty much no matter what we do as parents.

The other kind of behaviors, the experience-dependent kind, are the kind we’re probably talking about scaffolding. Now these are things like tying your shoelaces, reading, and learning a second language – we might want our children to learn to do these things but they’re certainly not required for survival. And I think a lot of parents have heard about these “sensitive periods” “windows of opportunity” and worry that if they aren’t taking advantage of their child’s sensitive window then they’ll miss out on something everyone else’s child is getting and won’t get that spot at Harvard. But it turns out that the sensitive window that we fear is so short is actually pretty long.

One study uncovered the critical result that the ability to learn a language is indeed related to the age at which the person begins learning that language, and that people who start learning English as adults never achieve the same proficiency as if they had started pre-puberty. But dig even further into the results and you find that people who arrived in the United States *before the age of seven* achieved performance equivalent with a person who had always lived in the U.S.. For arrivals after that age there was a linear decline in performance through puberty; after that there was no longer a correlation with age but instead there were differences in individual performance that weren’t found in the other age groups. So the important part here is that – assuming the results for the English learners hold true for native English speakers learning another language, the window to learn a second language starts to native proficiency seems to start to close around age seven. Parents of toddlers thus have a good deal of time to play with on this, and whether the child has a Chinese-speaking nanny or not will likely have no bearing on his later ability to learn Chinese to a native level – he could still pick it up perfectly adequately several years later. And there’s no critical window that slams closed for learning the language even after puberty – you can still learn a new language today if you want to, although perhaps not to native fluency.

One review of related literature says that “critical periods” are the exception rather than the rule and instead we should think of them as “sensitive periods” because they function across a broad – and flexible – range of time. Instead of worrying about the specific timing of certain activities we should pay more attention to the overall quality of the child’s experience beyond the traditional birth-to-three years that are often thought of as the critical window. Finally, there may be no critical or even sensitive window at all for some activities like chess and gymnastics. We just can’t generalize the sensitive periods that exist for evolutionarily important behaviors like bonding between mother and infant and say that similar sensitive periods exist for every learned behavior.

Anyway, now we’ve done that little aside into experience-expectant and experience-dependent behaviors the point I want to make is that (1) we don’t necessarily need to scaffold experience-expectant behaviors like language learning because the child will pick it up anyway, and (2) we *can* scaffold experience-dependent behaviors *if we want to,* but it really is a choice we make as parents about what we believe to be important in our child’s experience and how we want to teach it to them. The thing to remember is that providing your toddler with a loving environment with adults who respond to his needs is the most important thing you can do to give him a good start in life; scaffolding, if you choose to do it, is just gravy.

So, if you choose to do it, how do you scaffold learning? There are five key components. The first is that the child is engaged in an interesting and culturally meaningful activity in a collaborative way with another person. In other words, the child probably wants to learn – either because she is inherently interested in the process and the outcome, and/or she sees the social value of learning the thing (whether that value is just spending time with a parent, or “because all my friends can do it”). The “with another person” part is important too – while I suppose it’s possible that an instructional book or video could play the role of scaffold, researchers have shown that people learn best when they are working with others when trying to solve a problem (and I can attest to that, having had to spend an awful lot of time watching videos to learn new programs over the last few weeks to get this podcast into your ears).

The second concept, is the idea of intersubjectivity, which means how two people arrive at a shared understanding of a common task. So as I was reorganizing the crayons in the box for Carys I was reminding her of that we had solved the problem previously, and wondered aloud if the crayons might fit if I helped her to turn a few of them around.

Third is the warmth and responsiveness that characterize the interaction which maximizes the feelings of competence. So the adult watches closely to anticipate when the child might struggle so the adult can offer just enough support for the child to be able to proceed by himself. And when the task is concluded, the adult can acknowledge the achievement – which is not to say that you have to go overboard with effusive “good job”s; usually a quiet “you did it!” will suffice.

Fourthly, you want to keep the child in his Zone of Proximal Development. You can do this with the types of activities you make available, and by breaking tasks down into their component steps to make them easier to understand. The adult should provide moment-by-moment help as the child needs it, and withdraw support as his competence increases.

Finally, the adult – and the task – should promote self-regulation, which means that the child is in control of the activity rather than the adult, and the adult should only intervene after the child has had some chance to struggle. If the adult steps back and allows the child to first try what strategies he thinks might be appropriate instead of always stepping in to say “this piece goes here,” the child’s learning and self-regulation will increase.

A variety of experimental studies have shown the benefits of scaffolding children’s learning. A pair of researchers named Roberts and Barnes found that the best predictor of 4- 5-year olds’ scores on intelligence tests was parental scaffolding and the use of questions that gave children opportunities to think and speak about the task. Directive and commanding phrases from mothers were negatively related to children’s performances. A study by Professor McCarthy found that children do well at a spatial construction task when their mothers have previously taught them how to divide the task into manageable sections, and when the mothers have practiced reducing parental assistance when the child no longer requires it. Finally, a Professor Pratt found that some adults were able to shift their level of support in doing math problems depending on the child’s need moment-by-moment – so providing help when the child needs it (although not so much help as to take over the task) and then backing off as the child begins to succeed. The use of that shifting behavior predicted gains in the children’s learning of math.

So, just to reiterate as we wrap up, scaffolding is a very culturally-specific practice. And I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is an essential key to children’s learning that maybe your kids have been missing out on if you haven’t been doing it. It’s also really important not to push it too far; as Professor Callaghan mentioned in our episode on creativity and artistic ability, if you do push your scaffolding attempt far the child may get frustrated and just give up. Younger children might just appear to ignore you – I see this in Carys when I ask her why she thinks something happened. At two years old she’s able to tell me what happened in real life or in a story but if I ask her why she just ignores me. I still ask her every couple of weeks or so to test whether she has developed that ability yet, but I don’t keep pressing it on a regular basis – instead I back off a bit and talk with her about *what* is happening in a story or in real life.

So scaffolding is just one more tool in your toolbox to help you support your child’s development, and I hope it helps you to understand a bit more about when you can lead a bit more and when it’s best to step back and let your child lead the way.

Don’t forget that all the references for today’s episode are on Your Parenting Mojo.com, under episode 5, Scaffolding Children’s learning.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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