Setting Your Child Up For Success: Helping to Master New Skills

Children are constantly learning, and not just in the classroom. Every book they read, every toy they play with, every person they speak to…pretty much every situation they encounter is filled with opportunities to develop cognitive, motor, social-emotional, and problem-solving skills.

While some of this learning can happen independently, the importance of an “instructor” has been well documented. If there is a particular skill your child is working hard on, read on for guidance on how to help him master the next step!

Work in the Zone of Proximal Development

young boy reading books

Lev Vygotsky, a pioneer of social constructivist learning theory, developed a concept called the “Zone of Proximal Development.” The idea is basically that there is a subset of knowledge that children can attain on their own. Meaning they can master a skill to a certain extent without any other assistance. There is also a level of knowledge beyond the child’s reach – no amount of independent learning and exploring will be sufficient for them to reach that level. The Zone of Proximal Development (or ZPD) is the area in between. In the ZPD, an instructor, or what Vygotsky called a “Knowledgeable Other” (i.e., someone who has already mastered the skill), facilitates the child in skill-building by challenging them to work one step above their current level of mastery.

So what does this mean in practice? Let’s start by thinking about how the ZPD could apply to a younger child. For example, say you’re working on fine motor skills. The child may be able to play with large building blocks, such as Duplos, on their own. But after a while, no amount of playing with Duplos will further their fine motor skills.

Perhaps the goal is to build with smaller Legos, but they’re not quite ready yet. If you simply hand them the Legos, they’re likely to get frustrated and give up pretty quickly. Instead, to inch them towards the next stage of learning, scaffold them by providing hands-on assistance. Maybe at first, they guide the Legos to the right place, and you help to click them together. Keep challenging your child to push one level past their current mastery while providing direct support to complete the task. Once they master placing Legos on top of each other, you can work towards having you both push the Legos together, then working together to complete more complex configurations, and so on until you’ve got a Lego Master on your hands!

For older children or teens, this could mean speaking to them using vocabulary that is one level above what they’ve mastered—or asking questions about their homework that pushes them to think one level above their current inferential abilities.

An excellent way to gauge whether you’re in the ZPD is to look for the anchors: if they can complete the task without any assistance, they’re ready for the next challenge. If it’s too hard to do, even with you supporting them one on one, dial it back. You’re looking for the sweet spot where you can serve as a symbolic “step ladder” towards making progress. 

Give Positive Feedback

mom helping son on the computer

Learning a new skill often carries a certain level of excitement and intrigue with it but can also evoke a good deal of frustration and self-consciousness. As parents, we often point out when our children take a misstep when learning something new (“No, the puzzle piece doesn’t go there…”), but we sometimes forget to give feedback on what they are doing right (“You’ve got really strong follow-through on your baseball swing!”). Giving this feedback helps children know what to keep doing – without getting honest feedback about what’s going well, they might not realize it’s something they should keep up!

To do this, give labeled praise as much as possible. Tell them exactly what it is they’re doing well using language that shows that you are proud of them or they’re doing a great job. I love how nicely you’re sitting still at the dinner table! You’re doing a great job focusing on studying. That was some excellent balancing you did on your new bike! The more feedback they get for the good, the more they’ll build on those skills, the better they’ll feel about themselves, and the longer they’ll stick with a difficult task!

Focus on Progress, Not Outcome

young girl coloring a picture

We can’t expect perfection on our first try – beyond beginner’s luck, perhaps! If you wait for your child to nail a difficult task, you’ll both be waiting forever. Instead, help build momentum by breaking challenges into steps. For example, if your child is working on their golf skills, keep them close to the hole. As their aim and swing improve, move them further and further back. If your child is working on contributing to household chores, start with simple tasks (like carrying their plate to the sink), then work up to the next step (running the plate under water) until they’re ready for the Full Monty (scrubbing dishes with soap and sponge). If your teen is learning a new language, start by helping them study simple vocabulary (like putting index cards on different everyday objects around your house), then work up to more complex vocab and grammatical structures!

About Sasco River Center

A multidisciplinary practice offering a range of diagnostic and therapy services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families; specializing in Collaborative & Comprehensive Testing, Psychotherapy & Sensory Processing.

We are a merger of Sensory Kids & The Southfield Center for Development