Scaffold Skillfully

Scaffold Skillfully

“Scaffold” is something of a buzzword among educators, analogous to the idea of erecting some sort of temporary support when a building is constructed. With children it is providing hints, suggestions, partially completed projects, and other kinds of support that help a child learn or accomplish things. As a parent you are doing this instinctively. You are scaffolding if you place a left shoe in front of your toddler’s left foot so he can dress himself, or if you ask your five-year-old what might happen if she tries “the striped piece” as she puts together a jigsaw puzzle, or if you discuss the possible outcomes of different choices with your teenager.

Offering this kind of assistance is something we tend to do: our culture promotes it; we’ve grown up with it; and children learn from it. The more interesting, but much less discussed side of scaffolding, is knowing when to withdraw support and appreciating that a good scaffold is sometimes silent. This is skillful scaffolding.

Scaffolding is usually associated with the Soviet developmentalist, Lev Vygotsky, who lived in the early 20th century, but whose work became influential in the west much later, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. He actually never used the term scaffold, (American psychologist Jerry Bruner introduced the term), but he described something called the “zone of proximal development.”  His insight, which perhaps seems obvious now, is that children, or anyone for that matter, are able to work a bit beyond their current level of competence when they collaborate with a more experienced or knowledgeable partner. You can imagine a sort of space between where the child’s skills currently are and where they will next be. We can enter that space, or zone, with support. The next step in development then becomes less distant; it comes into closer proximity, hence the name “zone of proximal development.” So scaffolding refers to the collaborative efforts of the more knowledgeable partner that help another move into this zone.

Simply being attuned and aware of what your child is trying to accomplish suggest ways of scaffolding. Hinting and asking questions are frequent forms of supporting, as is doing part of a task or arranging materials to make a task simpler. Scaffolding is one of the most important ways we support development. Skillful scaffolding relies on being tuned into your child’s skills, interests and efforts. Try to notice what your child is trying to accomplish and collaborate with her so that she can succeed in part through her own actions or thinking. Scaffolding is sharing with another who is less skillful, not doing for another. The support enables success and promotes discovering how to do or think about something. It  gently bolsters confidence.

An important question we usually fail to consider is, at what point do we withdraw a scaffold?

Scaffolds can become a hindrance or an annoyance or can even disempower. Children develop from attempting things themselves and they discover a lot from their own efforts. Doing too much, or saying too much, thwarts this. Skillful scaffolding not only helps children build skills and understanding, it also nurtures independence and helps children take responsibility for themselves.

  • Effective scaffolding requires being a good observer and even suspending some of your own ego—the part that directs and controls.

So one aspect of skillful scaffolding is paying attention to what your child is managing, or nearly managing, independently as she steps into the zone proximal development and allowing time and space for her to think and act alone. Often this means offering one suggestion or prompting one action and then suspending your help, only offering additional support if your child looks to you for more help.  Interacting in this way respects your child’s intrinsic drive and emerging skills.

It is worth noting here, that when a child becomes frustrated or discouraged, it almost always means the stretch is too great at the present time and a change in activities would be the kindest help you can offer.

Scaffolding skillfully also calls on you to recognize the power of being present and nothing else. 

We often overlook the power of not doing and not saying, but of just being there. It’s the power of nothingness. This oversight is nicely captured in these lines from the Tao Te Ching:

Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that is useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore just as we take advantage of what is,
We should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

~ Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, translated by Feng & English and by Waley ~

It is so very easy for us to fill our interactions with our children with instructions and guidance. We so easily see what a child can do to solve a puzzle or complete a task.  We talk and talk: saying, suggesting, congratulating. Sometimes the best support is simply being present, our quiet attention creating the empty space in which our child can experiment and discover.  We might think of our simple suggestions, comments, questions or quiet engagement as the spokes of a wheel. They begin to create a structure, a form.   It is the child’s own efforts in the empty space between our comments, between the spokes, that enables development and nurtures confidence.   In this way our silent presence, our verbal nothingness, is exceedingly useful.

This nothingness provides a space for your child to fly alone.  Sometimes he will fall or make mistakes; but he has the freedom and joy of trying within the space you have created.  It’s a bit like guiding newly walking toddlers to a carpet and cushioning the sharp edges of a coffee table, protecting them from a danger they cannot manage themselves, but creating a space for them to walk. Alone. Constantly doing things for children, or telling children how to do things, is a bit like constantly rescuing a newly walking toddler, when a soft carpet and a little cushioning is all they need.

Scaffolds aren’t always necessary

Sometimes we forget that children don’t always need to be taught in order to learn. Children are naturally curious and thrive as scientists or explorers. From early childhood on, humans examine things, imagine ways to use things or to solve problems, invent things, discover through trial and error or through careful inquiry, endlessly create, devise and ponder. Left to themselves, freed of adult direction, children on their own or in collaboration with other children learn vast amounts of information for themselves. Such self-discoveries are hugely rewarding and bolster intelligence, creativity, imagination and self-confidence.

Thus while wise scaffolding means providing support and recognizing when to withdraw it, or to stand by silently, it can also mean realizing that scaffolds are not always necessary.

This Guiding Principle encourages you to be aware of your child’s deep motivation to learn, to accomplish things, to be independent and to offer support as he or she does, while at the same time being aware of when your help is no longer needed or is an obstruction. This thoughtful double-sided awareness enables skillful scaffolding.


Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane (1972). LaoTsu Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.ISBN: 0-394-71833-X

Waley, Arthur (1934).  The Way and Its Power: A study of the Tao Te Ching and its place in Chinese thought. London: Allen & Unwin.