Scaffolding: Fortifying the Foundations of Development

byBy Joshua Metz, LCSW

A little girl, just out of the crawling phase and only beginning to learn what the wonders of the world hold for one who can walk, spies a favorite stuffed toy on an armchair. With tentative steps that grow in confidence each time, she navigates her way to the chair and attempts the climb. Her father, watching from close by, encourages his daughter with a broad smile when she looks back at him one last time before she ascends to her prize. “You see the bunny, honey! He needs a hug. You can do it!”. The girl makes a few attempts at boosting herself up, but she is unable to get a foothold. She grunts with frustration and attempts again. Dad kneels down next to his daughter, and places his arm halfway between the floor and the seat cushion, as if a branch had magically appeared in just the right spot. Without missing a beat, the girl uses the newly found branch to successfully hoist herself into the waiting arms of her bunny. Her dad smiles, clearly reveling in her small but hardly insignificant triumph. “You did it, Sweetie. You climbed up all by yourself!”

Did the girl climb up “all by herself” as Dad pronounced? Or did Dad get her up? Well, it’s a little of both, actually. Dad did provide an important step, but only one step in a series of actions the little girl herself performed to retrieve her prize. The other steps – eyeing the bunny, deciding that it was within reach, and having the confidence and perseverance to go for it – that was all girl!

What Dad did is an example of an important tool that parents often use to help their children develop new skills, experience mastery, and thrive in their daily experiences. Dad provided what we call “Scaffolding” in his well-placed arm to support his daughter’s success. A good definition of scaffolding might be the act of supporting learning by providing the child with only the right amount of guidance and/or instruction and motivation so that the child is self-motivated and able to successfully practice and ultimately master the new skill. To scaffold is to help the child until he “gets it” and can really “do it himself”.

With scaffolding, one moves away from the notion that a child either can or cannot do something – Jenny can tie her shoes or she can’t. Scaffolding allows for a different perspective: How much support, instruction, or guidance does the child need to accomplish the task? The task remains constant. It’s not changed or altered to be made easier for the child, like substituting a clip-on tie for a real one. In the example of the tie, the scaffolding offered to the child to learn the intricate knot may include an expert hand that comes from behind to demonstrate the tying process while the child looks in the mirror. After a few demonstrations, the child may be given certain parts to accomplish (lining up the two ends, doing the first over and under, or perfecting the final adjustment). Help arrives for the parts that are most difficult for the child, but only for these parts. In this way, the child is an important contributor to the tie being tied. And with practice, the child begins to take over the parts that were supported (or scaffolded) when more practice was needed. Then, voila! A tied tie on a smart dressed young man!

There are important ingredients that make scaffolding successful and prevent it from becoming a substitute for the child’s acquisition of a new skill (e.g. she can’t do it right, or right now, so I’ll just do it for her).

  • Scaffolding is flexible. It isn’t static and designed to remain in place forever. Think of the scaffolding one might see on the side of a building. It’s there to allow workers access to hard to reach areas. Once the work is completed, the scaffolding is removed. The same is true when using scaffolding with a child. Training wheels are used to keep a bike upright and balanced so the child can practice and learn how to pedal, brake and steer. As the child becomes proficient with these skills, the training wheels can be raised up and eventually removed.
  • Scaffolding can be direct or indirect. Support and guidance can be offered directly by the parent or caregiver (e.g. breaking down a task into manageable parts). Modeling is another direct scaffolding technique. Indirect scaffolding can be offered by creating an environment that supports the child’s exploration, play and development (e.g. an area set aside for play or hobbies, or an outside area with a swing set and mulched areas for physical play. Depending on the task before the child and parent, how the scaffolding is presented and used can change.
  • Scaffolding works best when the child is interested and engaged in the learning. It gives the child the right amount of help so that the practice contributes to mastery of the skill – it’s not too easy or they get bored, but not too hard lest they become discouraged. By following the child’s interest and motivation to engage in the task, you also open the door for the child to practice asking for help. It’s as if the child is saying “I want you to sit next to me while I try to do this weaving. Don’t help me or tell me what to do. Unless I ask for help, and then only help me with what is difficult. Otherwise, just sit there and wait.” The scaffolding you’re providing is being present but not pushy, thus allowing the child to decide when help is needed or not.
  • Scaffolding is about the process, not the product, of learning. With scaffolding, you’re more concerned with the process of learning a new skill than with the finished product. The process of learning is about the struggle to attempt the task, fail, regroup, try again, do better the next time, ask for guidance, try some more, get even better, and then to triumph! This means that sometimes scaffolding takes a little longer and means going slower (e.g. pre-measuring ingredients in the kitchen so the child can focus on mixing, or having the child make a list of what is needed at the store). But, when you focus more on the process, over the product, you provide more opportunities for positive reinforcement and praise. Ever heard the expression “Getting there is half the fun”?

So with these ingredients in mind, let’s look back at our new walker who needed to scale the family room chair for her stuffed bunny. The scaffolding Dad provided could be easily removed or modified as he observed his daughter getting bigger and more skilled at climbing. It was indirect, in that all he did was provide a new hard object for her to use as leverage, and not a means of propelling her upwards. The little girl was certainly motivated to get up (after all, it was her idea). And Dad did not rush to get the bunny for his daughter or simply lift her up. He took some extra time to give her only the amount of help that she needed to succeed. He saw the benefit in focusing on the process of climbing and not the product of being on top.

In closing, I would like to relay a story of scaffolding that I overheard at a local restaurant. A family of four (Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister) was having dinner. During the meal, the father asked his wife if she recognized the song playing. “It’s by that singer from the sixties. Her father was a singer too,” he added. “Oh, that’s Nancy Sinatra”, his wife replied. “That’s right! You know, we bought our first house from a woman named Nancy,” Dad replied, and the conversation flowed on. A minute or two later, the boy (around 7 years old), starting rattling off names of people he knew, but included the circumstances around which he knew them, “My 2nd grade teacher was named Mrs. Graff. The man at the shore who taught us to surf was Mr. McMahon.” The daughter chimed in with some people/place references of her own.

What the Dad did, unbeknownst to him, I think, was to indirectly scaffold the children’s practice of remembering people’s names with the places with which they were associated. Why? When was the last time you needed to remember someone’s name, and when you did you also remembered the circumstances around which you came to know their name. How did you learn to do that? Maybe you went out to dinner when you were a kid, and your parents laid down some scaffolding along with the napkin in your lap.