Girl learning to roller skate on beautiful summer day in a park.

ADHD: Accelerated Learning By Taking Small Steps In The Zone Of Proximal Development

I think that helping our children learn is critical, so much of my time is spent thinking about learning and how to accelerate harmonious and relevant learning in our children.

In this article, I’ll share with you an example of how my wife, Rikke, and I help our children learn, – and in the end, I’ll share what you can do to help your child learn faster too.

This is the example I often use when parents come to me to figure out how to help their child learn or unlearn certain skills.

Anxiety around food

My oldest daughter (now 6yo) is very sensitive, and one day a couple of years ago she came home from preschool and said that she had touched a poison berry bush, and was afraid that she would die if her hands touched her lips. That’s what one of the other kids had told her. She was fearful throughout the day and dreamt about it at night.

That started a series of worries about what got close to her mouth and what would make her sick and die. This is absolutely natural for a bright, visual thinking 4-5 yo that reflects on things – and maybe even understood more that she needed to at the time.

Shortly after that she got afraid of her own feces and became afraid of wiping herself even though she already mastered the practice.

It peaked when she started worrying about if food was still safe to eat if it had landed on the floor or even on the table or chair. And with the way she eats, there were plenty of opportunities to ask if something was still safe. In fact, this happened several times per meal throughout the day for weeks.

So we had to figure out a way to help her not only relax about her food but relax about her body and her safety and feel confident in the situation.

We used our own version of micro-level scaffolding.The idea of scaffolding is based on the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development, so let’s start there.

Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is the place between the things that the child can already do, and the things that the child can not do and won’t learn even through trial and error. It’s the things that the child can do with guidance. It is also the things that the child can do and fail in doing while rapidly learning how to do them through failure.

An example could be that my 6 yo daughter is learning to ride her rollerskates. She is not getting much help, but she is progressing rapidly by doing it, falling, doing it some more, almost falling, and doing it some more. Like a small child learning to walk, she is just doing it and getting back up for more. She’s in her zone of proximal development.

When I was a child, I lived near a lake that froze over. I remember distinctly my older cousin Rasmus saying that he didn’t want to go ice skating until he had already learned it. He never did, of course. He was outside his zone of proximal development and felt anxiety instead of motivation when faced with skating.

According to Wikipedia:

The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. It is a concept introduced, yet not fully developed, by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) during the last ten years of his life. Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult’s example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help. Vygotsky and some other educators believe that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning.

Image: Wikipedia

What that means is that children can be in three states:

  1. I can do this already and I am not challenged.
  2. I can’t do this, but I can learn it.
  3. I can’t do this, and I am not ready to learn it and maybe even fearful about it.

Image: sketchplanations.com

When you look at it like this, it’s pretty obvious that children are most likely to learn something that is in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

So our task as parents is to place everything that we would like our children to learn in their ZPD.

I think of the ZPD as a spectrum. At the far end of the spectrum, there are the things that are a bit intimidating and at the near end of the spectrum are the things that a child’s curiosity will naturally lead them to investigate or try out.

In my daughter’s case, she had anxiety about the issues of germs and we needed to help her in from the anxiety zone to the ZPD and then into the comfort zone.

Scaffolding

A child will typically not take large steps through this spectrum, so our job as parents is to help the child take small enough steps that the child is comfortable all the way. This process is called scaffolding. You provide the scaffolding so that your child can stand securely and safely and higher up that would otherwise be within reach.

A great example of scaffolding is the way that computer games are built. They all have levels or other ways of progressing to more difficult versions of the game. If you’ve looked over your child’s shoulder while playing his/her favorite computer game, it may not have made any sense at all, yet your child is whizzing about like he is at home in the game. You can never start into a higher level in a computer game. Instead, when you first start a game it is fairly easy, and you only get to progress to the next level when you have mastered what the game designer knows that you must master before moving on. The designer has created a series of small learning points to help you build the knowledge, understanding, and instincts to play the game at the next level. This is done very deliberately. The game is the scaffolding you need to learn fast and progress to the next level.

This example with our daughter is an example of such scaffolding and how we applied it to learning and becoming more resilient.

In overview, we did the following: First get her to know a simple set of rules by answering her questions, in the same way, every time. Then invite her to remember the questions herself and answer them, then only prompt her to find the answers herself, and in the end not helping her at all.

Getting from Anxiety to the ZPD

The first thing on our agenda was to help her feel safe that she knew what to do when helped. To help her be able to solve the problem WITH our help.

We started outlining a very simple rule for our daughter: If the food hadn’t directly touched her genitals or her anus, then she would be fine. We always made a point out of being relaxed when discussing this issue. It should be said that in this period, our daughter was often naked while in the house, so things could actually fall and get into contact with those areas. 😉

So every time she asked us whether her food was safe, we would ask her a simple question: “Did the food touch your genitals or your anus?” If she said no, then we told her that she was welcome to eat it. We asked the question even if we knew the answer. And if she talked about how the food had landed face down on the floor or on her foot, we asked that one simple question again (and again).

We never asked her to eat it or said that she had to eat something because that might trigger the opposite response in her.

We did this for several weeks until she got tired of our response.

The idea was to make the decision making so simple that she always knew what we were going to ask her.

Moving through the ZPD

Next, we wanted to help her become slowly more reliant on herself. This means transferring responsibility from us to her. To be effective (and fast) we needed to do this slowly.

We could have gone to the end goal here and told her that she already knew the answer. I believe in taking it really slow to build her confidence and not get a backlash into fear when she was suddenly faced with new situations. So for the next couple of weeks whenever she asked if she could eat something that had fallen off her plate, we would ask her what the question that we always asked her was.

Specifically, the question would be: “What is the question that we always ask you?”

That would invite her to ask the question and then answer it. Creating the exact mental strategy that we wanted her to construct.

Ask herself the question – then answer it.

By the end of this period, she started asking the question before we had finished asking our question. AND we were seeing a decrease in the number of questions about food from her! She was still dependent on our prompt, so even if she was internalizing the process, she wasn’t fully in the comfort zone yet.

Time to move to the next phase.

Moving into the Comfort Zone

To get to the comfort zone, she would have to reliably (and eventually automatically) be able to ask herself the question and answer it without our intervention.

To get to this point we tapered down the help in the prompt.

In the beginning, we would ask: “So what’s the question?”

Then move on to: “How would you know this yourself?”

And then on to: “You probably know this already, right?”

We ended out with just sending her a big “dumb” smile and an “I don’t know” body language gesture (shoulder shrug + palms open, facing up/forward).

This would prompt her to ignore us and find the answer herself. This last phase probably took about a week, and in that week we saw a gradual decrease to zero questions about food and safety. It hasn’t been an issue since.

After the first full day without questions, my wife and I high-fived in the evening, congratulating each other on having put in the effort to help our daughter become less anxious and more resilient.

Parenting Teamwork

To be able to go through such a detailed learning process, my wife Rikke and I coordinated the effort several times per week. We both calibrated the responses from our daughter throughout the day and compared notes in the evening. Then brainstormed and planned next step responses to our daughter.

I think that this team effort is critical to getting an even flow in the child’s progression towards comfort zone independence.

If you are not able to do a coordinated effort with your partner, from lack of understanding in your partner, lack of cooperation from your partner, temper in your partner – or plain lack of a partner, then you’ll have to sketch out your own plan and try to stick with it.

What learning can be built this way

All of it!

Learning how to clean your room is not done by being told that from now on it’s your turn because Mom has done it for far too long. What does it take to learn how to clean a room? How do you even notice that there’s anything to clean?

Learning to help out in the house. Learning to take out your dishes. Learning to go to bed at night. Learning to turn off the light when you leave the bathroom. And so on…

Learning to understand other people’s body language. Learning to sit still in class. Learning to …

What could you use this way of helping you child learn?

And what would the small scaffolding steps be?

Let me know if this way of building learning in your child resonates with you.

Have a great day. ☀️

All the best,

Anders.❤️