What Is Scaffolding in Early Childhood Education?

teacher reading to a group of preschool students

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What Is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding—also known as scaffold learning, scaffold method, scaffold teaching, and instructional scaffolding—is a popular teaching method in early childhood education. It works well when applied alongside other strategies

In construction, scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support a work crew and provide access to the materials necessary for building, maintenance, and repair. The philosophy is similar in educational scaffolding and works almost the same way. The difference is that the goal is to build independence in children.

The idea is that children can more readily understand new lessons and concepts if they have support as they're learning. Scaffolding also can involve teaching a child something new by building on what they already know or can do.

By definition, scaffolding provides a temporary support, is sensitive to students' strengths and weaknesses, and aligns with the learning objectives and the assigned task. Additionally, scaffolding is standards-based, provides students with necessary supports to accomplish a task, and demonstrates respect for all learners.

How It Works

Scaffolding involves breaking learning into chunks to make the material or skill easier for kids to master. For example, if you were to use scaffolding with learning to read or a reading assignment, you might talk about some of the vocabulary words first, then read a passage of text, and then discuss what is happening in the story. The key is that you're breaking things down so that kids are better able to learn something new.

Scaffolding is useful because it helps young children who are new to a school environment build confidence while learning.

If a child gives the wrong answer to a question, a teacher using a scaffolding method can use that incorrect response coupled with a previously learned skill to help the child come to the correct conclusion. Scaffolding helps kids reach a learning goal or objective that they do not yet have the skills or ability to do on their own.

In early childhood education, scaffolding can be implemented in many ways. For example, once a child recognizes a specific letter, you can teach the sound that it makes, Next, you can move on to words that start with that sound. Or, if a child can use safety scissors already, they can try using a hole punch, since it is a similar fine motor skill.

Benefits of Scaffolding

Using scaffolding with young learners has a number of benefits. Aside from learning critical thinking skills, students develop an ability to learn independently. Additionally, scaffolding teaches kids how to learn something new without relying on memorization. There are many reasons to use scaffolding with young children.

Facilitates Engagement and Motivation

Because scaffolding involves kids directly into the learning process, it helps keep them engaged in learning and focused on developing the skills they are trying to master. Plus, the process can be adjusted to meet the specific needs of each child; this is one reason why teachers use scaffolding not just with young children, but with kids who have learning differences and other special needs.

Reduces Anxiety and Uncertainty

Learning something new can be stressful and confusing, but scaffolding makes the process more manageable. Asking a student to do something outside of their capabilities can create anxiety and hinder the learning process. Scaffolding can help students see how they might be able to accomplish the task, which builds confidence.

Builds Momentum

Because scaffolding often involves moving through the learning process slowly and gradually, there is ample time to address issues and questions. This allows lessons to build upon one another and keeps the learning process moving forward instead of stalling when a child gets confused or doesn't understand something.

Helps Identify Learning Gaps

Using scaffolding, parents and teachers can identify what students already know and what they still need to learn. This assessment component helps adults develop more effective learning opportunities.

How to Use Scaffolding

When using scaffolding with young children, a teacher provides students with support and guidance while the students are learning something new and age-appropriate, or just slightly above what they can do themselves.

As children learn the skill, the teacher can reduce the support, then remove it once kids have mastered the skill. Scaffolding works best when educators employ the method in different ways to accommodate the needs of each learner. They may use many techniques to provide the support each child needs.

Ask Probing Questions

Asking open-ended, curious, thought-provoking questions encourages a child to come up with an answer independently. For example, if a child is building a tower with blocks, a teacher could ask, "What do you think would happen if we built a tower super tall?"

Make Suggestions

If a child is having trouble completing a project, offering hints or partial solutions can help without giving away the answer. For example, "That block tower keeps falling down. One way we could fix it is by putting all the bigger blocks on the bottom. What other ways do you think we could help it stay up?"

Introduce a Prop

Encourage the child to use different resources to solve their problem. This helps to promote thinking outside of the box to come up with a creative solution. This might sound like, "What do you see in our classroom that would help support our block tower? Maybe if we turn that pencil holder upside down, that could help. Can you think of anything else?"

Offer Encouragement

Praising a child for attempting or completing a task, with even a simple "Good job!" increases a child's confidence and sense of self-competence. Better yet, praise them for their efforts: "I see you are trying lots of ways to build your tower. You are really sticking with it."

Pose Limited-Answer Questions

If a child is having trouble coming up with an answer to a question on their own, a teacher who's scaffolding can provide multiple answers to choose from: "Do you think we should put this small block on top, or this bigger one?" This approach helps the child by challenging them to evaluate the choices and come up with a correct response independently.

Provide Support

When a task is proving tough, the teacher can help a child think through alternatives: "How about if you put wide blocks here instead of skinny ones? Do you think that would work?" Or, they could get a child off on the right foot by discussing the steps needed to complete a task, such as by saying, "After you make the bottom floor of your building, you can add smaller blocks on top."

Use Demonstrations

In the block tower example, an educator who is scaffolding could make their own smaller version of a block tower to demonstrate how the blocks work best.

How to Use Scaffolding at Home

Parents can use scaffolding to empower kids to do things on their own by breaking down the skill they are trying to master. The key is that you don't hover or do things for your child, but rather use patience and guidance to allow them to master skills on their own.

Allow your child to experiment with something new on their own before intervening. Observe what your child is doing by watching, waiting, and listening. Offer to help if your child appears frustrated or particularly stumped. Make a specific suggestion or comment about the next step, such as "You might want to try a smaller puzzle piece."

Help your child accomplish a task by showing them how to break it down into smaller, more manageable steps.

Model new skills when needed, but allow your child to try on their own. Offer support if needed. Fix mistakes only when necessary and without pointing them out. Refrain from finishing a task for your child. Give lots of praise for your child's hard work and effort. Help your child feel proud of what they accomplished.

A Word From Verywell

Scaffolding is a particularly effective technique for teaching new skills to young children. Whether they are learning to read, ride a bike, or draw a picture, breaking down the task into more manageable chunks and expanding on what they already know makes the process more accessible. You not only help build their confidence and but also provide them a more effective way to master a new skill.

Look for ways that you can incorporate scaffolding into your child's learning. You may find that it not only reduces their stress, anxiety, and frustration, but that it also is extremely effective.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.