What is Scaffolding in Early Childhood Education?

What is scaffolding?

Put simply, it is the act of an educator or parents adjusting their support techniques to suit an individual child at a developmentally appropriate level. Most who work with young children use a form of scaffolding each and every day without knowing it as we support our children and students in learning new ideas and skills.

Understanding Scaffolding in Early Childhood Education

In early childhood education, “scaffolding” refers to the type of assistance provided when a child is working to accomplish a task. While there are many ways to offer support to a child, such as giving specific instructions on what to do, showing them what to do through demonstration, or offering general encouragement when they are on the right track, studies have shown that no single strategy has proven to be superior. Instead, parents and early childhood educators are most successful in helping children when they vary their strategy according to the progress the child is making.
For example, if a child is on the right track to completing the task, support should be less specific and more encouraging. Should the child start to struggle, more specific instructions or demonstration should be provided so the child can again make progress towards the goal. Ultimately, scaffolding (assistance) should be matched to the needs of each child so they can achieve success in an activity that they would have otherwise not been able to perform by themselves.

To further understand the idea of scaffolding in early childhood education, picture a real-life scaffold. You cannot move on to building the next level of the scaffold without first establishing the level beneath it. You must provide the initial level of support for a child to move on to the next level. So, what happens when you haven’t provided the right level of scaffolding for a child? Let’s take a look:

If the Educator is Far Ahead of the Child

Attempting to teach a preschool complex mathematical problems would be extremely challenging – they’re simple not ready for that. In this scenario, you as the educator would be on the 10th level of the scaffold, while the child might be at the 2nd level. Since you can only move up one level of the scaffolding at a time, you must adjust your support to help the child move from level 2 to level 3. Remember, you cannot skip the process of building upon the next level. Trying to jump from level to level 4 would be too much of a leap in this case.

If the Educator is Too Far Behind the Child

On the other hand, if you are trying to show a preschool aged child how to walk, you may be on the 2nd level of the scaffold while the child is already at the 6th level, where he or she knows how to run, jump and skip. By being too far behind in the type of support you are offering, you are not assisting the child’s development in any way since they are not being challenged at all. Instead, you should support them in building upon their current skills and moving them to the next level, which in this case could be offering an experience for them to learn climbing skills.

Overall, scaffolding in early childhood education is an essential technique that you as an educator will become familiar with and skilled at as your experience working with children increases. The next time you offer assistance to a student, consider whether or not your help is at an appropriate level and try to adjust it to his or her specific needs. Want to learn more about scaffolding techniques? One of our favorite definitions of scaffolding here at HiMama is from Scaffolding Learning in Early Childhood Environmental Education:

“Analogous to the way that scaffolding is built to just the needed level when constructing a building and then removed when the building is complete, educators engage in scaffolding by providing the necessary level and type of support that is well timed to the children’s needs.” 

To learn more about early childhood education techniques, subscribe to HiMama Blog. In upcoming articles, we’ll be exploring professional development strategies for Preschool Teachers.

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Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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