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What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development concept argues that children can only develop to their full potential with guidance and encouragement from skilled adults and teachers. Learn how to support young children in learning new skills with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Preschool teachers have the incredible privilege of guiding children through many growth and development stages. With the support of their teachers, children learn new skills alongside their peers and strengthen their abilities. Without this crucial support, many children would not be able to reach their full potential.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) underlines this concept by arguing that there is a gap between what children can learn independently and what they can achieve with the support of a skilled partner or teacher. This concept can be used by teachers to recognize where a child is in their own development and guide them toward their next steps, leading to an increase in learning and knowledge.

In this article, we'll explain more about the zone of proximal development and how to use it best when teaching young children.

What is the zone of proximal development?

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) was created in the 1920s by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist. His definition of ZPD is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

According to Vygotsky, each child has a set of skills they can accomplish by themselves and skills they can accomplish with the help of a more experienced partner or teacher. The space between these two stages of development is where preschool teachers can step in and use ZPD to assist children in moving from one developmental stage to the next.

child building tower with colorful blocks Source

Leading children through the zone of proximal development

Once a teacher has identified that a child needs support mastering a skill or completing a task, they can effectively move them through their zone of proximal development until they have reached independence in completing the task or have mastered a skill without assistance.

Vygotsky described four stages of ZPD

  1. Stage I: Assistance provided by others

When a skill is in a child’s zone of proximal development, they need support from someone more knowledgeable and experienced (such as a teacher, parent, caregiver, or peer) to accomplish the task.

  1. Stage II: Assistance provided by self

In this stage, a child has developed a greater understanding of the skill and can “self-assist” by reflecting on what they’ve been taught and how they previously practiced it. They may still need some support at this stage, but they’re beginning to take more control and are getting closer to doing it on their own.

  1. Stage III: Automatization through practice

By the automatization stage, the child no longer needs assistance with the task. They have fully developed and internalized the skill.

Stage IV: De-automatization to earlier stages

Sometimes, a child may experience a fourth stage, where they regress to earlier stages of learning. This can occur when faced with a new environment or different demands. The child will then start again from stage one and progress through each stage, leading to stronger and more solidified learning.

Why is the ZPD important in early childhood education?

In early childhood, the brain is undergoing remarkable and rapid changes. A high-quality early education is key for optimal development across all domains and plays a significant role in kindergarten readiness and future academic success. 

The zone of proximal development allows teachers to tailor lesson plans and learning experiences by taking advantage of the classroom social dynamics and the array of children’s skills present. This is especially true in a mixed-age classroom where an older peer may act as a mentor, teaching or modeling a new skill to a younger peer.  

The ZPD also directs teachers to approach a child’s development through the lens of their potential. This involves concentrating on what the child can do and assisting them in reaching their goals. By evaluating each child's present skills, determining what they can achieve on their own, and identifying what they require support for, teachers can help children set realistic goals and achieve them.

Young girl holding up her picture with mermaids Source

Using ZPD in the classroom 

The term “scaffolding” commonly appears alongside the ZPD in teaching materials. In early education, scaffolding is when educators provide children the right tools and support at the right time, such as breaking down lessons into smaller, more manageable segments, to promote children’s development. Educators gradually decrease their support as children become better at grasping new concepts and material. With timely guidance and support, children can gain a more advanced level of understanding and skill.

Preschool teachers can use scaffolding techniques to help children learn new skills in their zone of proximal development. Examples of scaffolding techniques include:

  • Modeling: Demonstrating the skill so children can see how it’s done.
  • Visual aids: Using photos, graphic organizers, videos, or charts to help children visualize and grasp the concept.
  • Offering hints: Assisting children through verbal processing and helpful sentence starters.
  • Prior knowledge: Referencing what the child already knows as examples to help them connect with what they’re trying to learn.
  • Asking questions: Challenging children with guiding questions such as, “What do you think will happen if we try this?”

The zone of proximal development gives teachers a whole new perspective to interact with children and help them reach their fullest potential. To support children’s development teachers can focus on:

  • Children building meaningful relationships with each other to promote social learning. 
  • Creating opportunities for peer mentorship and small group work.
  • Breaking down difficult tasks into actionable steps that children can follow and incorporate.

Partnering with families 

A child's educational journey is greatly influenced by the collaboration between teachers and families, especially when they use the zone of proximal development. The first step is for teachers to identify the child's ZPD and communicate this to families. This helps families understand where their child stands in their learning journey. With this mutual understanding, teachers and families can create effective strategies and activities focusing on the child's ZPD.

For example, teachers can establish an open line of communication such as sending regular progress reports on the child's development. With a tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report feature, you and your staff can share real-time updates with families, send daily reports, and record milestones in one central place. Teachers can also create an individualized learning plan and share it with parents and guardians and they can schedule regular parent-teacher meetings to discuss the child's progress. Consistent communication between teachers and families is crucial to assess progress, make necessary adjustments, and celebrate achievements together. 

Additionally, teachers can provide families with resources, materials, and guidance on how they can support their child's learning at home. It is essential that the activities provided are challenging yet not too difficult. Families play a vital role in their child's education by creating an environment at home that promotes learning. They can achieve this by offering emotional support, encouragement, and a positive attitude toward learning. Parents and guardians can gain valuable insights into their child's ZPD by observing their struggles and successes. They can then tailor their involvement to meet their child's specific needs. 

It is also important for families to work closely with teachers to ensure that learning goals are aligned and that concepts taught in the classroom are reinforced at home. This partnership between teachers and families empowers children to reach their full potential, bridging the gap between what they can do independently and what they can achieve with guidance and support. Ultimately, it promotes a holistic and effective approach to education that benefits the child's overall development.

Final thoughts

The concept of the zone of proximal development is a great way for preschool teachers to give children effective learning tools that can help them grow. By challenging their critical thinking skills and helping them build their own relationship with learning, teachers will see how children reach a new level of confidence. This will help them develop a healthy approach to learning and turn challenges into learning opportunities.

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