What Is Scaffolding in Early Childhood Education?

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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 functions well when applied alongside other strategies and works similarly to how scaffolding is used in construction. 

When building something, scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support a work crew and provides materials to aid in the construction, maintenance, and repair of buildings. The philosophy is similar in early childhood education and works almost the same way to build independence in children.

The idea is that new lessons and concepts can be more readily understood and comprehended if support is given to a child as they're learning. Scaffolding also can involve teaching a child something new by utilizing things they already know or can already do.

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 chunk 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 on their own.

According to El Education, a national non-profit that partners will public schools across the nation, scaffolding helps kids reach a learning goal or objective that they do not have the skills or ability to do on their own. Here are some defining characteristics of scaffolding:

  • Provides a temporary support
  • Is sensitive to students' strengths and weaknesses
  • Aligns with the learning objectives and the assigned task
  • Is standards-based
  • Provides students with necessary supports to accomplish a task
  • Demonstrates respect for all learners

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 rather than just relying on memorization. Here are some other benefits of scaffolding.

  • Facilitates engagement and motivation: Because scaffolding involves kids directly into the learning process, it helps keep kids engaged in learning and focused on developing the skills they are trying to master. Additionally, using scaffolding enhances a child's understanding; and the process can be adjusted to meet the needs of the students.
  • Reduces anxiety and uncertainty: Learning something new can be stressful and confusing, but scaffolding allows parents and educators to break down the problem or skill into more manageable pieces. Asking a student to do something outside of their capabilities can create anxiety and hinder the learning process. But scaffolding can help students see how they might be able to accomplish the task, which builds confidence.
  • Builds momentum: Because scaffolding often involves breaking things down and moving through the learning process slowly and effectively, there is time to address issues and questions. By doing so, 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 areas of improvement: Using scaffolding, parents and teachers can identify what students already know and what they still need to learn. This assessment helps guide them in developing more effective learning opportunities.

How to Use Scaffolding

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

As the children learn the skill, the support is lessened as their abilities develop and until they can do the new skill all on their own. Scaffolding works best when educators employ the method in different ways. For instance, a teacher may:

  • Ask probing questions: This encourages a child to come up with an answer independently. For example, if 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: Additionally, the teacher could encourage the child to use different resources to help the block tower stay up and think outside of the box by coming up with a creative solution. "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.
  • 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 in order to help the child come up with a correct response independently.
  • Provide support: When a task is proving tough, the teacher could help a child think through alternatives. Or, they could get a child off on the right foot by discussing the steps needed to complete a task.
  • 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.

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 and then words that start with that sound. Or, if a child can use safety scissors already, they can utilize that fine motor skill to use a hole punch.

Tips for Parents

Parents who want to use scaffolding at home should look for ways 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 them, but rather use patience and guidance to allow them to master skills on their own. Here are some things to remember.

  • 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 like "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.
  • Let your child complete the next step on their own, but 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

When it comes to young children, scaffolding is particularly effective in teaching them new skills by expanding on what they already know. Whether they are learning to read, tie their shoes, or master another skill, by breaking down the task into more manageable chunks, 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 the things your child is learning. In the end, you may find that it not only reduces their stress, anxiety, and frustration but that it also is extremely effective.

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5 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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