Scaffolding in ECE

Robert Lynch, Operations DirectorCurriculum

A well-known concept in Early Childhood Education called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was originally introduced, though not fully developed, by psychologist Lev Vygotsky writing in Moscow almost 100 years ago. The ZPD is defined as the difference between what a young learner can do on their own without any assistance versus what they cannot do on their own and require the assistance of an adult (parent or teacher). Essentially, this “zone” is the gap between what a child knows and what he/she does not yet know. It is the space where optimal learning opportunities reside. Eventually, the child will learn the skill and no longer require the help of an adult (i.e. eating at the table) so then will move on to a new task in turn requiring assistance.

Vygotsky originally introduced the theory as an argument against the use of knowledge - based testing to measure students’ intelligence levels. He posed the question that if students received the same grade on a test, does that mean they are at the same level of development? Through his research and observations, he concluded that they were not. Even more importantly, he argued that it is much better to examine a child’s ability to solve problems on their own compared to their ability to solve problems with the assistance of an adult. This led to a large body of research and writing by later psychologists who continued to develop and expand upon Vygotsky’s original work.

The Theory of Scaffolding

In the 1960s, Vygotsky’s unfinished research was resurrected and revived by a new group of developmental psychologists. They began studying and testing the ZPD in a number of different educational contexts including pre-school and elementary aged children. They discovered that not only is the ZPD a highly effective tool and concept, but furthermore, encouraging and supporting children to attempt the most challenging tasks inside their ZPD led to the most learning. This led to the concept of scaffolding first coined by Dr. Jerome Bruner in the 1950s or early 1960s but not appearing in psychology literature until Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976 p. 90) used it to describe how a tutor’s help allowed a pre - schooler to solve a block reconstruction problem.

Scaffolding is defined as the process by which an educator guides a young learner through their ZPD and then tapers off the guidance as it is no longer needed just as the scaffolding is removed from a building once construction is complete. The guiding process may involve focused instruction, questions, positive interaction or physical assistance. In order for scaffolding to be effective, the child must begin with what they already know and then move to what they don’t know. To fully appreciate how it is applied in ECE, picture the construction of a real-world scaffold. You cannot build the next level of scaffold until the one below it has been firmly established. The right level of support must be provided before a child can move on to the next level. The skill of the parent/educator lies in providing the right level of support for the child by knowing where they are at currently. It is important to note that the terms scaffolding and guided learning are often used interchangeably.

Testing the Effectiveness of Scaffolding

Since the 1970s, there has been a great deal of research on the effectiveness of Scaffolding in ECE. The result of this research has been two solid conclusions…

  1. Scaffolding is highly effective and can help students learn much more than they would if left to more traditional teaching methods.
  2. It requires the educator (or guiding adult) to have a good knowledge of the child’s ZPD so that the teaching methods, activities and instructional scaffolding can be adopted accordingly.
A 1975 study by Wood and Middleton found that 4 - year children who were assisted by their mothers were able to build much more complicated block towers compared to those who worked alone. Perhaps even more revealing, the children that were most successful were the ones whose mothers adjusted their assistance (i.e. scaffolding) based on how well their child was completing the task complimenting when things were going well and supporting when they were struggling. A 1990 study by Freund tackled the fundamental question of whether children learn more effectively with Piaget’s concept of “discovery learning” or by Vygotsky/Bruner’s concept of “guided learning”/scaffolding. She focused on a group of children between the ages of three to five years old who were asked to decide on what type of furniture to place in various rooms of a doll house. First, Freund assessed what each child already understood about the placement of furniture so had a good grasp on each child’s ZPD. Second, each child worked on a very similar task either alone (discovery learning) or with their mother (guided learning or scaffolding). Third, to assess what each child had learned they were given a more complex task sorting furniture. The results showed conclusively that the children assisted by their mothers performed much better then those who worked alone. This appeared to give the nod to guided learning over discovery learning.

Scaffolding Teaching Strategies

Scaffolding is one of the fundamental teaching strategies that educators (and parents) use. It is difficult to imagine children learning how to walk completely on their own or learning how to ride a bike without the use of training wheels. We would not give children a difficult text to read without first pre-teaching some key vocabulary. Here are some key strategies to effectively use scaffolding.

  1. Activate Prior Knowledge and Abilities

Recall that it is vitally important to know the child’s current level of knowledge or ability in order to allow teaching within their ZPD and to effectively design activities. There are a variety of ways to do this including simply observing the children over time, asking the right questions and encouraging social time and group work to find out what they can do.

  1. Model Learning Activities

Model the activity/task for children before they are asked to complete a similar one.  Every skilled educator knows that a demonstration always beats an explanation. One way to model tasks is with the “Fishbowl Activity” where a small group in the middle of a circle (the fishbowl) engages in an activity thus modelling how it is done for the larger observing group surrounding them. Thus, it does not always have to be the educator who is the only one modeling the activity.

3. Encourage Socialization, Group Work or Cooperative Learning

Each child may not have exactly the same ZPD and it is not always possible to tailor an individualized lesson plan for each learner. Structured student interactions (both verbal and non- verbal) allows children to show and share what they already know and also to see and hear new ways to complete the task.

4. Use Visual Aides

Visual aides stimulate and motivate a learner. Suppose that an educator’s lesson on a given day is to teach colors. She knows that a child named Marsha already knows the color yellow and places a group of toys in a circle in the middle of the room. With the entire group looking on she asks Marsha to bring her all the yellow toys which Marsha happily does. Thus, she already knows Marsha’s ZPD (has an idea about colors but only knows yellow and not the others). The toys are not the outcome but only a scaffolding tool which must be thought of as temporary and meant to be removed.

The following clip demonstrates Vygotsky’s ZPD in action.


Vygotsky developed the ZPD theory between 1924 and 1934 and the reason it was not fully developed was because his brilliant life was cut short by a bout of Tuberculosis at the age of 37. He was a contemporary of Skinner, Pavlov, Freud and Piaget but never attained their level of eminence during his lifetime largely because of his untimely death and also because his writings were not accessible to the western world. His theories were not well-known in the west until 1958 and were not published there until 1962. But his influence has continued to grow markedly since that time. He was indeed a prolific writer publishing six books on psychology over the last ten years of his life.

Bruner’s scaffolding approach encircled and ensnared Vygotsky ZPD giving it an immortality that had eluded its original author. And Bruner (1915-2016) lived past the age of 100 ensuring that Vygotsky’s work would continue to grow in importance.  Towards that end, it is important to note that the terms scaffolding, “instructional scaffolding”, “cooperative learning”, “reciprocal learning” and “guided learning” have all come to have the same meaning in today’s ECE literature as developmental psychologists apply them to the study of children’s development while educators continue to find creative ways to implement them in the classroom.


Alber, Rebecca. January 24, 2014. 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use with Your Students

Freund, L. S. (1990). Maternal Regulation of Children's Problem-solving Behavior and Its Impact on Children's Performance. Child Development, 61, 113-126.

Lewis, Beth. March 27, 2017. Scaffolding Instruction Strategies.

Sarikas, Christine. July 10, 2018. Vygotsky Scaffolding: What It Is and How to Use It. 

Saul McLeod. 2018. The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding 

Vygotsky LS. Thought and Language. Kozulin A, trans. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 1986. (Original work published in 1934)

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman., Eds.) (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original manuscripts [ca. 1930-1934])

Wood, D., & Middleton, D. (1975). A study of assisted problem-solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66(2), 181−191.

Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.