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Julie McIsaac
May 5, 2021

How can I help my child with problem-solving?

Scaffolding in education (or parenting) is about the ways that adults can help children with problem-solving through scaffolding - introducing new ideas to our children to help them develop their thinking. We want to build our children’s skills from the ground up, and scaffolding is what helps them build this strong foundation.

Think about a time when you were successful in learning a new skill.

Maybe it was in school, in sport, or at work. Can you remember what it felt like when you were introduced to the new skill? Do you remember how it was taught to you? Can you remember having an “ah ha” moment where something clicked? What did it feel like? 

Now think of a time you had a hard time learning a new skill. Maybe it took a lot longer for you than other people. Maybe you needed extra support or to be taught in a different way. Maybe you needed to try it yourself and make mistakes before you understood fully. What did that feel like?

‘Scaffolding’ in teaching is a term used in education to describe the way teachers can support a child’s learning in the classroom.

Parents can do this at home as well. It is a way to think about how we introduce new concepts to our children or students to help them develop their thinking. 

Just like the scaffolding on a building that is being constructed, the platforms provide a base for the builders to keep building up. If you want to build a 20-story building, you don’t start with the top floor. You start with the foundation and build from the base. 

This is the same with learning. Development is a path but it does not always happen in a straight line, and it does not always happen the same way or at the same speed, but with the right scaffolding in place, it continues to move forward. 

Let’s use math as an example.

A lot of people don’t like math. Maybe we’ve learned from a young age that we are “just not good at math.” (That’s called a fixed mindset, by the way). Or maybe we didn’t learn math from the bottom up; a lot of us learned strategies to get us through, but without an understanding of the concepts, these strategies are meaningless. In math, just like all with cognitive abilities or academic subjects, there is what we call a developmental ladder. You cannot understand multiplication if you don’t understand addition. Each step builds upon the previous step. If you jump ahead to a top step, your foundation is rocky. You might be able to do it, but it’s not as stable as it could be. 

We want our children’s foundation to be stable. We want to build their skills from the base. We do that by providing scaffolding along the way. Stronger foundations make things easier. 

A little bit of (interesting!) education history.

Vygotsky (in the 1920’s and 1930’s), a child psychologist interested in how we learn, developed the idea of the “zone of proximal development”. In simple terms, this is the sweet spot right in between ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’.You can also think of it as the place between ‘too boring’ and ‘too frustrating’. 

What happens when we feel too bored or too frustrated? That depends on our coping strategies, but many of us lose focus or shift our attention. With young kids, we often see it in their disruptive or isolating behavior. 

Finding that sweet spot is key. This is the amazing work of educators and parents, to observe their children and students, to find their sweet spot and to scaffold around it as best they can. Jerome Bruner coined this process as “scaffolding” in the 1970s as based on Vygotsky’s ideas. 

Is it possible to always exist in the “sweet spot”? No! Definitely not. There is a lot of trial and error, and noticing and guessing. That’s part of the process and that’s ok. But the best thing we can do, as parents and as educators, is to see the ability in our children and to give them the opportunity to build on it; to have that ‘ah ha’ moment. 

Ok, sounds great… but what does this look like?

  1. Observe! Notice your child’s behavior patterns and think about what might be causing them. What are they drawn to and what do they pull away from? Is there a pattern related to the type of activity? Does your child fall to the floor every time writing is involved, even if you know they know the answer?

  2. Break it down into small chunks. For example, if it is writing that is hard, think about all of the skills that go into writing; there’s the act of holding the pencil properly and having fine motor control, understanding letter formation, holding ideas in your mind, or copying something from the board. This may involve story recall, the ability to reflect, or the ability to express what you’re thinking. When you break it down into very small parts, look for when your student engages with you, or shows interest. This is your clue. You’re getting closer to the sweet spot.

  3. Wait and wonder. By waiting before you give the answer, or ask a question, you are giving your child the opportunity to wonder.  By wondering aloud with your child you are creating the space for them to think it through. You are giving them time to figure it out and you know they can because they’ve got the foundation. You’re giving them just enough support to propel them forward. Ask open-ended questions, encourage curiosity, and get comfortable with silence, even when you know if you give them one little clue they’d arrive at the answer…wait it out, give the child the gift of that a-ha moment when they figure it out on their own. 

Learning is a process and a dance and research has shown us that it only happens when we recognize and support one another; student, teacher and parent. 

Use your child’s IEP to think about their developmental level in each academic area. And remember this is a document that changes and grows with your child. Remember the math example? I believe with the right emotional support and scaffolding in teaching, it can get easier (and that’s called a growth mindset!).

  • Julie McIsaac, Ph.D.

    Child Development and Disability Advisor

    Julie specializes in working with children and families with diverse developmental profiles She uses reflective practice, emotion-coaching, play and a relationship-based framework to support skill building in the areas of emotional-regulation and problem-solving. Julie consults with families, schools and community organizations. As a parent, she understands the need to have a cohesive team supporting a child and family.

    Profile Photo of Julie McIsaac
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