Virginia Commonwealth University
September 26, 2011
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Phyllis L. M. Haynes, Ph.D.

At first glance, Mrs. Stevens’ math lesson at Shore Middle appears to be going well. Most of the students are engaged, some need a little additional help to comprehend facts, and one student’s behavior gradually changed. James was quite during most of the lesson; however when students were placed into groups James became defiant by pushing his worksheet on the floor. Within a matter of minutes his behavior began to escalate.

Frustrated student

Students who exhibit problem behaviors are far more likely to be at-risk for a myriad of negative developmental outcomes.

What exactly happened that sent James into this place of non-compliance and defiance? James’ poor behavior in math class may merely be a symptom of a far bigger problem; instruction that was not in his zone of proximal development. The math tasks given were out of James’ zone of proximal development, the task was too difficult for him to do alone. Students who exhibit problem behaviors are far more likely to be at-risk for a myriad of negative developmental outcome (Sutherland et al., 2010). Ignoring or not addressing James’ behavior has consequences beyond Mrs. Stevens’ room.

Vygotsky (1978) maintained the child follows the adult’s example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help or assistance. He called the difference between what a child can do with help and what he or she can do without guidance the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). ZPD is the distance between the actual developmental 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.

Figure 1

James is doing fine “The Zone” James exhibits inappropriate behaviors
Tasks James is able to do independently Tasks James can do with assistance Tasks James cannot do even with assistance

Vygotsky and other educational professionals believed education’s role was to give children experience that were within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning. Vygotsky’s work was the framework for which the concept of scaffolding was developed. Scaffolded instruction is the systematic sequencing of prompted content, materials, tasks, and teacher and peer support to optimize learning and a process in which students are given support until they can apply new skills and strategies independently (Larkin, M. 2002).

Scaffolding instruction includes activating prior knowledge, breaking instructional tasks into “doable” chunks, modeling, using graphic organizers, and allowing students to make predictions and outcomes, to name a few.

How do I scaffold my lessons to get students in the Zone?

In order to incorporate scaffolding throughout the lesson, teachers may find the framework outlined by Ellis & Larkin (1998) helpful.

The teacher does it – The teacher models how to use the technique, for example, how to use a graphic organizer or apply a mnemonic. For example, the teacher may have a partially completed graphic organizer on an overhead transparency and “think aloud” as he or she describes how the graphic organizer illustrates the relationships among the information contained on it. Or the teacher my model how to apply the steps in a mnemonic to help students problem solve.

The class does it – The teacher and students work together to perform the task. For example, the students may suggest information to be added to the graphic organizer. As the teacher writes the suggestions on the transparency, students fill in their own copies of the organizer.

The group does it – Students work with a partner or a small cooperative group to complete a graphic organizer (i.e., either a partially completed or a blank one). Student may also work in stations and rotate to give students a variety of ways to explore new concepts.

The individual does it – This is the independent practice stage where individual students can demonstrate their task mastery (e.g., successfully completing a graphic organizer to demonstrate appropriate relationships among information) and receive the necessary practice to help them to perform the task automatically and quickly.

In a previous Innovations and Perspectives (September 17, 2009), opportunity to respond (OTR) was suggested as an instructional techniques to help address behavior concerns. The four strategies outlined, choral response, response cards, errorless learning, and wait time are all supports that can be used to provide instruction in a students’ zone of proximal development. By adjusting James’ math tasks to his zone of proximal development, scaffolding instruction, and providing opportunities to respond; James is able to development math skills and performs them at a level of automaticity over time, thus reducing, if not eliminating those avoidance behaviors observed in Mrs. Stevens ‘class.


Ellis, E. S., & Larkin, M. J. (1998). Strategic instruction for adolescents with learning disabilities. In B. Y. L. Wong (Ed.), Learning about learning disabilities (2nd ed., pp. 585-656). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Haynes, P. (2009). An ounce of prevention: Instructional techniques helps address behavior concerns. Innovations and Prospectives

Van Der Stuyf, R. R. (2002). Scaffolding as a teaching strategy. Retrieved July 16, 2011, from

Larkin, M. (2002). Using scaffolded instruction to optimize learning. Retrieved July 16, 2011, from

Sutherland, K., Conroy, M., Abrams, L., & Vo, A. (2010). Improving interactions between teachers and young children with problem behavior: A strengths-based approach. Exceptionality. 18(2), 70-81.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



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