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What is scaffolding in early childhood education?

What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is the act of an educator or caregiver adjusting their support techniques to suit an individual child at a developmentally appropriate level. Most people who spend time with young children are using a form of scaffolding every day without knowing it, just by supporting them in learning new ideas and skills.

Understanding scaffolding in early childhood education

In early childhood education, scaffolding involves providing the right kind of assistance when a child is working to accomplish a task. The idea was coined by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who emphasized the importance of apprenticeship and instruction in early cognitive development.

While there are many ways to offer support to a child, such as giving specific instructions, providing demonstrations, or offering general encouragement, 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 demonstrations should be provided so the child can again make progress towards the goal. Ultimately, scaffolding means matching your level of assistance 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. (Vygotsky called this the zone of proximal development.)

To further understand the idea of scaffolding in early childhood education, picture a real-life scaffold. Each level of the scaffold is supported by the level beneath it. In other words, children require a certain level of support in order to move on to the next level developmentally. 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 preschooler complex mathematical problems would be extremely challenging – they’re simply 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 2 to level 10 is just too much of a leap.

If the educator is too far behind the child

teacher and children

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. Being too far behind in the type of support you are offering, you are not assisting with development since the child is not being challenged. Instead, you should support children 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.

Scaffolding in early childhood education is an essential method that you as an educator will become familiar with as your experience working with children increases. The next time you offer assistance to a child, consider whether or not your help is at an appropriate level and try to adjust it to their 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! To learn more about different early childhood education curricula and programming approaches available and the influences that have shaped the field into what it is today, check out our post about the history of early childhood 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.” 

Make sure you never miss an important moment!

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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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