Scaffolding: an essential tool in teaching your child

I have occasionally heard parenting referred to as being an 'educator'. Initially this sounds amusing and over serious, bringing to mind as it does  pushy parents and flashcards. Yet, there are a variety of things that parents are expected to teach their children even if you're not of the 'your baby can read' or 'kumon' mindset. A friend of mine, a kindergarten teacher is frequently exasperated by the number of four year olds unable to put on their own shoes. This and other self-care and household tasks as well as motor and social skills are just examples of the type of things parents are required to teach their children on a daily basis.
As such, it is always a good idea to think about the way in which we're teaching them. People may have great tips on how to teach a child how to tie their shoes or how to stop a baby from throwing food off a table. Yet you are only going to teach them that once, the most important thing is the teaching techniques that you use.
I am of course,a  huge fan of modelling but that will only get you so far. Another helpful and one that is well considered in education literature is scaffolding.
Scaffolding refers to providing appropriate temporary support that assists children to a higher level of skill than they would without assistance.  Then and this is the tricky bit, the supportive strategies are slowly removed to shift more responsibility over to the child 1. By using this technique you ensure you are not babying your child by providing more assistance than they require but you are also not forcing them to get frustrated, intimidated or discouraged by learning new things with all the associated negative self-perceptions. This provides them with momentum in learning and motivates them to learn, preventing the 'don't know, won't try' problem so frequently seen in young children.

Sounds great right. So how do you do it?

Before you start you need to ensure that the task you wish to teach them has a clear purpose and is appropriate (able to be mastered by a child without assistance). Then identify how much of the task you would expect your child to be able to currently complete by themselves. Aim just outside of their actual skill level when you start in order  to encourage their development and skills.
When teaching, you model the task for them while talking them through the steps and encouraging them to ask questions. Respond to any questions and expand on their efforts without rejecting what they have achieved. Your primary task is to collaborate with them not to evaluate or correct their efforts.
When it appears they are comfortable with the task, gradually withdraw the scaffolding supports 4.

So what are the supports and what do they look like?
Well that will depend on the task at hand but some general tips are

  • Break up a skill into discrete parts and then give them the assistance they need to learn each section. 

    • Break up a skill into discrete parts and then give them the assistance they need to learn each section. For example, putting on their shoes involves the steps of undoing the straps, putting the shoe on and tightening the straps after they are put on. Rather than giving it to them as a complete task you can teach them each step individually 1.
    • Give a simplified version of the task and then gradually increase the difficulty over time  1.
    • For more complex tasks such as social skills talk them through your thought process. Obviously this can be difficult to achieve in certain social situations, saying to your child 'grandma is making me very angry but I don't want to upset her so I'm just going to make an excuse to leave' while grandma's right there will probably not go down well. But where possible, this is best achieved before you do something or while it is occurring rather than waiting until afterwards.  When this is not possible you can outline the information around or imply it by your modelling. Children's cognitive abilities are still developing so any opportunity to see developed, critical thinking is essential 3
    • Illustrate the problem in multiple ways to increase the likelihood of retaining the lesson. For example in teaching social skills you might orally describe the idea of saying 'hello, how are you?' when you meet people, you might read picture books demonstrating this, you might get them to act it out with their toys and do role plays at home  1.
    • Ask them to share their own experiences or ideas for solutions. Sometimes you may have to offer hints or suggestions but this helps them grasp ideas as their own 3
    • If you think your child will become frustrated first boost their confidence by introducing them to tasks they can perform with little or no assistance. This will help ensure they remain motivated enough to advance to the next step 5.
    • Use concrete prompts, questioning or coaching when appropriate including offering tips, strategies and cues 5
    • Provide encouragement and praise 6.
    • Describe how the new lesson builds on the knowledge and skills they already have. This helps them to have confidence and make connections in their learning but may also increase their engagement if you can link it with something they are very proud of or interested in  1
    How do I know if they're ready to withdraw the supports?
    Well its a tricky one but through talking, questioning and careful listening you should be able to judge how much they are able to do and what they without assistance 2.  You want to provide just enough guidance to help them through an obstacle, you are not assisting them in something they can do themselves. This applies even if the way the child is resolving the problem appears odd, as long as it is effective the fact that it is not how you would do it is irrelevant. However if the child is becoming frustrated or asking for assistance, you can always replace a removed support if required.



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