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What is the zone of proximal development in children’s education?

What is the zone of proximal development

The Zone of Proximal Development is a term most early years educators will be familiar with. Groundbreaking when it was first introduced, this theory is still recognised and taught as part of teaching courses.  

The Zone of Proximal Development, often abbreviated to ZPD, is a concept that many educators may use to support children reaching their ZPD without necessarily realising, but it can be really helpful to understand it fully.

So, what is the Zone of Proximal Development? How can it be implemented in the classroom? And how can it be used to support the children you teach?



What is the Zone of Proximal Development?


Psychologists and social constructivist Lev Vygotsky first developed the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development.

In his work, Vygotsky defined ZPD as:

“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” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

Put simply, the ZPD is the difference an educator or a more capable other makes when a child begins a task compared to the end after the support has been given. It is the process of moving a child from their current cognitive level to their potential cognitive level.  In the classroom, this would be a teacher or assistant helping a learner with a new task, giving them the help they need to do that task independently.

Providing a child with knowledge, guidance, and demonstrations will push them towards mastering an outcome much more successfully than if they tried alone. 

Proximal refers to how close the learner is to mastering the skills in question.

The concentric ring theory, as shown below, demonstrates ZPD well. 

Zone of proximal development

The outer ring indicates what a child can achieve alone-this is their current cognitive level and is particularly low when faced with a new concept or task. 

For example, if a child is given some building bricks for the first time, they will not understand what to do.

The middle ring indicates what a child can achieve with some assistance-this could be an adult demonstrating a task or explaining a new idea.

The child watches the adult stack the bricks one by one and begins to try by himself. He still needs support to choose the best bricks to use and shown how to balance them.

The central ring shows ZAD- the zone of achieved development. The child can now demonstrate their learning unaided. The central ring is the goal, and the child has reached their cognitive potential. 

The children now understand how to use the bricks to build a tower and can do so unaided.

With the proper support, the child will have travelled from having a minimal understanding of the learning to full knowledge due to your assistance and instruction.


Two main aspects to maximise ZPD:


Social Interaction


Vygotsky’s work and his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development also highlight the importance of language and social interaction in a child’s development. 

Recognising the importance of language acquisition and learning from an adult is fundamental to ZPD. 

Beginning from the precious first moments, a baby starts learning through social interactions from those around them, and this continues into childhood when they are likely to attend a nursery or pre-school. Vygotsky noted that children learn from adults through their modelling and dialogue. A child will internalise what they see and hear and then copy the behaviour. They cannot do this without an adult’s presence.

Although Vygotsky primarily focuses on the role of the adult in social interactions, a more knowledgeable peer can also help guide a child. For example, if that peer more readily understands the teacher’s guidance and has already achieved independence in the task, they can then help their friend through the stages of ZPD. 




Scaffolding in learning is similar to scaffolding used in construction.  In construction, it is essential to support a structure when building or repairing it systematically. In the classroom, scaffolding is necessary to provide a structure to aid a child to achieve an outcome or reach their potential. The support is also sequential and organised at school and broken down into step-by-step lessons.

Providing scaffolding allows a child to solve a problem that is beyond their current capability. Wood et al. (1976, p. 90) defines scaffolding as a process “that enables a child or novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted efforts.”

Also referred to as the scaffold method, or scaffold learning,  many teachers use scaffolding instinctively in the classroom, such as talking them through a task and ‘chunking’ the information into smaller pieces. Other specific examples of types of scaffolding include:


1 – Modelling– Demonstrating a new activity or skill is one of the most apparent scaffolding methods commonly used in the classroom. Showing and explaining provide a clear example of what they need to do. Modelling thought processes are also highly effective for more complex learning outcomes.


2 – Pre-teaching vocabulary– Before introducing children to a new topic,  teaching them a new language with visual aids before the lesson supports their broader understanding.


3 – Revisiting and reviewing– Children will generally have prior knowledge of learning to some degree. Revisiting what they already know will help children to understand and learn the next step in that sequence. Frequent reviews will also help information remain in the long-term memory.


4 – Talking and reflecting– Allowing children time to talk and reflect on teaching and learning will help progression. Children given the opportunity to explain learning and instruction to their peers will often independently notice gaps in their knowledge. 


What does ZPD look like in the classroom?


As teachers, we understand that children need excellent teaching to make progress. Successful education consists of observing, planning, preparing and carefully taking into account the children in the class. 

By following these steps, practitioners can move a child through their ZPD, from not knowing a skill to independent application.  It is important to note that each child is an individual and has its own zones, depending on their capabilities and prior learning. 

A study by Wood and Middleton in 1975 observed mothers interacting with their children. They identified three key ways support was provided;


  • General encouragement- You’re doing great; keep going!
  • Specific instruction- Mix the colour paint you like and paint your picture.
  • Direct demonstration- Put the paintbrush in the paint and swirl it around…..


Outcomes of this study revealed neither one of these methods directly enhances learning more than the other.  However, changing the style of support depending on the child and their proximity to ZAD did. For example, a child with a complete lack of understanding would need a direct demonstration, physically showing them how the action should look. In contrast, a child nearing the central ring may just need encouragement that they are still on the right track and almost there.

Although this study focused on mothers and their children, it directly translates to classroom situations and how a teacher would interact with children they are educating.

For instance, when a child begins in their reception class at school, many tasks may be unfamiliar. 

Let’s say the children’s activity is to make a collage of all their favourite things. Provided are a stack of magazines, some scissors, glue and paper to create their picture.

 A child without support or prior knowledge is unlikely to be aware of the outcome, how it may look, or how to go about it. They may rip the magazines or ignore them altogether, not noting their importance in the activity. 

However, suppose an adult or a more knowledgeable peer joins this child to demonstrate and discuss the learning. The child will begin to copy and so start to move inwards towards the central ring. The guidance has boosted the child’s understanding and experience. The children would not be able to do this alone.


How can you help a learner move through the Zones of Proximal Development?


Here are some steps you can take to help learners reach their potential.  They are simple to follow, and you may find that you’re doing some already.


1- Assessment- All successful teaching begins with an observation or learning task to ascertain the child’s starting point. Knowing a child’s current capabilities is crucial in ZPD. Without having this accurate understanding, it would be impossible to scaffold future learning appropriately. Teachers need to make opportunities throughout a learning sequence to assess the children and plan the next steps. When assessing, being able to document clearly the child’s starting point is the only clear way to demonstrate progress through the year (something that is made easy through Chatta boards, and app).


2- Meaningful and thoughtful activities- To impact children’s learning, the tasks provided must be suitable and enjoyable. Otherwise, the scaffolding you intend to deliver won’t support them because they’re not interested. Using observations or assessments to discover their interests and cognitive capabilities is a firm place to start.


3- Social interactions-  Social interaction is at the core of this theory.  For a child to move through the zones, they must have ample opportunity to interact with adults and more knowledgeable peers. This could be 1:1 guidance, interaction during free learning time or pair or group work. A teacher is the hub of knowledge in the classroom and can support all learners as individuals.


4- Scaffolding- Providing the correct level of structure for a given child is crucial in a child’s successful progression. To begin with, teachers must use the observations and assessments to ensure the lessons are well-pitched. Too easy, and the children will already have reached the central ring. If it’s too complicated, they are unlikely to achieve it no matter what scaffolding is in place, creating unhappy and resistant learners.


Breaking the learning down into manageable, sequential chunks, revisiting and recalling previous knowledge and providing visual support are all methods of aiding children.




Hopefully, this article has provided a useful refresher on Vygotsky’s ZPD and its undeniable place in the classroom. In giving children the scaffolding to move from a place of not knowing, to independent application, a teacher has the potential to open doors and worlds to children. 

The Chatta approach in the classroom uses scaffolding in every lesson, because of its fundamental role in development and learning. Using Chatta, teachers can ensure each task is broken down into manageable chunks. The approach uses visual aids, revisits and reviews, support style and, of course, the power of social interactions between peers. Teachers who use the Chatta method will also provide meaningful tasks that allow for an abundance of interaction in pairs and groups to utilise and develop the power of language in learning. 

To learn more about the Chatta approach and see the difference for yourself, book a free meeting with one of our team.


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