Psychologist Lev Vygotsky is credited with identifying the concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development.” This “ZPD” is the area between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with help — that is, it’s the zone where growth and learning really happen. Zone of Proximal Development sounds impressive, but for me, I like to think of it as the “Just Right Challenge.”
What makes a “Just Right Challenge?”
Not so easy that the child can do it without thinking
Not so easy that he stagnates at one level and doesn’t build new skills
Not so hard that he can’t do it without a lot of adult intervention
Not so hard that he’s frustrated and wants to give up
Something new and challenging but not completely foreign — it builds on previously learned skills
Something the child can do with just a little bit of adult prompting or guidance
So how can we apply this?
When designing your therapy sessions and setting goals… Strike a balance between goals of varying difficulties. I advise graduate students and mentees to think about three levels of session goals: one review, one new, one reach/exposure.
The review goal is something the child has mastered in imitation and now needs help moving to spontaneous or conversational use.
The new goal is the Just Right Challenge. It’s the logical next step based on a child’s progression in any one area (speech, audition, language, cognition, etc.). She has all of the prerequisite skills, now it’s time to introduce the challenge.
The reach or exposure goal is something outside the child’s ZPD. It’s something coming up in the future to which we want to provide the child exposure now so she has a chance to hear it and gain experience with it before being expected to use it herself.
When determining accommodations for a child’s IEP… Think about what would constitute a Just Right Challenge. What is the minimum accommodation the child needs to succeed, allowing him to do as much as he can as independently as possible? Remember that we are putting accommodations on the child’s IEP of 504 plan to give access, not advantage.
When helping a child navigate educational challenges… Think about the potential consequences of failure. When is it a good learning experience (you didn’t speak up and ask for a repetition when you missed the homework assignment, so you’re going to have to take the late penalty) versus a more serious situation (you can’t hear the teacher in a lecture hall of 200 students so you’re going to miss lecture content for the entire semester) where the cost of failure is too great and we need to step in?
When thinking about self-esteem… Pop culture tells us that self-esteem is all about telling a child that he’s special, wonderful, the best, etc. But truly, research shows us that real self-esteem is built not by telling a child that he’s great, but by helping him see that he is capable. If a child constantly hears “You’re terrific” for no reason, he quickly learns that your words don’t mean much. But every time a child conquers a challenge, he learns to see himself as strong, intelligent, resilient, and able to handle what comes next. This is true self-esteem, and the Just Right Challenge applies here as well. What message do we send by assuming a child is not capable and stepping in too soon, whether it’s climbing a ladder on the playground or having a misunderstanding in a conversation with a new friend? Sometimes a little struggle is good for growth. If the parent constantly swoops in to save the day, the child thinks, “I must really be someone in need of help, someone who can’t do it.” On the other hand, what does repeated failure teach the child? Everyone needs an arena in which they shine, feel confident, feel secure, feel successful.
We have to strike a balance between over-helping and throwing the child to the wolves. What is that balance? It’s the Just Right Challenge.