When you think of “scaffolding,” you may envision the temporary structure at a building site that allows construction workers to get to heights they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own. As it turns out, scaffolding is also a well-researched approach to supporting your little one as she learns new skills.
What is Scaffolding?
Imagine a bridge over a river. On one side of the river is everything your child can already do. On the other side is everything she can’t yet do. The bridge represents what she can do with help. Scaffolding, in a nutshell, is how you help her cross the bridge. The key is offering just the right amount of support (more on this below) in decreasing doses until she can accomplish the task on her own.
For example, the first time to give your toddler a shape sorting cube, she already knows how to grasp, pick up and drop the blocks, but she doesn’t yet know how to put them in the cube. Scaffolding is how you help her learn to put the blocks where they go.
How to Support a Child through Scaffolding
Here are some things to keep in mind for successful scaffolding:
Observe your child.
What is her temperament? What does she enjoy? When does she give up? What kind of support does she respond to in a positive way? How long can she focus on an activity?
Identify opportunities for scaffolding.
When your toddler is taking forever to pull on her shoes, do you jump in and just do it for her, even though you know it’s a skill she needs to learn? We’ve all been there, which is why we wrote about the importance of sitting on your hands when your child is plodding through a new skill.
A key to scaffolding is asking yourself this question: What am I doing for my child that she is developmentally prepared to do on her own?
Offer “just the right amount” of help.
The aim of scaffolding is to help a child feel supported and secure while also encouraging independence and self-efficacy. Without support, a child may feel overwhelmed and give up. With too much support, she loses out on opportunities to problem-solve, and learn resilience through failing and trying again. In the middle is just the right amount of support, offered in small doses, that guides the child while allowing for mistakes, and even frustration (within limits, of course).
The amount of help you offer is important, but so is how you offer it. Ways to scaffold include:
- Demonstrating (and narrating while you’re doing it) —This is often the first step in teaching a new skill, and sometimes involves guiding your child’s hands. Give your child a chance to do the task on her own, and if she struggles, demonstrate again. As she catches on, you can simplify your demonstrations until she doesn’t need them anymore.
- Offer choices — If your child is struggling to find where a puzzle piece belongs, for example: Let’s see, I think it goes here, or here. Which one do you think it is?
- Ask “I wonder” questions — I wonder what would happen if you turned the piece (using gestures, or guiding her hand if you need to).
- Switch things up — If your child is losing interest in learning how to build a tower, for example, and she loves board books about animals, grab a few and try building a tower with them. Once she gets the concept, switch back to blocks.
Allow her time to process.
Here we go with not jumping in to help again! Keep in mind that little ones sometimes need several seconds (or more) to process what they see or hear before imitating or following instructions.
Lastly, offer lots of praise for your little one’s hard work. To read tips for praising your child’s efforts, head over to our article about nurturing a growth mindset.