Yoga props. You know, the blocks, rolled blankets and fabric belts that some practitioners of yoga use to support themselves? Someone asked me the other day what “scaffolding” is, and the best analogy I can give is “yoga props”. Yoga props are used to help a person explore a pose, stretch perhaps deeper or farther, relax more….getting a more profound and personalized experience out of their yoga practice than they would without these supports. People are all built differently — some are more flexible than others, some are stronger than others. Some people are recovering from injury, and need to be gentle on parts of their bodies. Yoga props allow many different bodies to be able to get a fuller experience out of the practice.
So too, for scaffolding. Scaffolding is intervening in various ways to allow your child to get a full experience — socially, academically, emotionally, sensorially — by bridging gaps in their development, compensating for difficulties they may have, or providing support to emergent skills. In the old days, we used to refer to this as “accommodations”, and making accommodations is one aspect of scaffolding. But scaffolding can be so much more: everything from simply being near your child, all the way to organizing and strategically engineering entire experiences can qualify as offering scaffolding for a child who may not otherwise be able to engage in an activity or event.
One of the challenges in providing scaffolding is knowing what is coddling, and what is scaffolding. Consider this situation: A slightly agitated mother sits outside her daughter’s second grade classroom, waiting to speak to the teacher. There is a field trip to a large natural history museum coming up tomorrow. This will entail lots of loading of children into cars, long drives, unstructured time and more chaos than usual, even for this groovy sort of alternative school. Once they arrive, the children will be put into groups to do information-gathering activities, as a way to structure their visit.
When she sits down with the teacher, the mother tells him that she has worries about tomorrow and asks that her daughter be put with certain children, hopefully in her own car. She also expresses doubt that her daughter can hold up during the long day and whether it’s absolutely necessary that her daughter do the group work that is planned for the visit. You be the judge: coddling, otherwise known as “helicopter parenting” or appropriate scaffolding?
Helicopter parenting, if you distill down all the various perspectives, seems to be used to describe a parent of a child at any age who gets involved in order to make things easy for their child, to assure their success (read: get good grades and get into a good middle school/high school/college/grad school/professional school), and to line things up so that their child has an easy time of it. It is problematic, say the critics, because by engaging in those behaviors, parents typically stand in the way of their children’s opportunities to grow through mistakes, disappointments, and other unpleasant, but totally normal, human experiences. The concern is that, athough helicopter parenting might make things easier in the short-term, in the long run, it impedes the child’s development of perseverance, resilience and grit.
So how do we evaluate our second-grade situation? By asking one simple question: What is motivating this mother’s behavior? What if this second-grader struggles with sensory processing issues? Loud kids in a car for a long drive doesn’t sound very appealing. What if she is on the autism spectrum, or cognitively far ahead of her age-peers — working in groups might well be a huge stretch. How about anxiety, especially combined with any of the previous issues? Boy, all the change and the long day is going to wear her out. Take into consideration, too, that for any learning to be accomplished, the brain has to be relaxed and receptive, not stressed and worn out. If any or all of these factors are present (and in our hypothetical situation, many are,) mom’s behavior starts to look a lot more like appropriate scaffolding. Managing who is in the car, and being close to her child will allow her to either modulate the overstimulation, support her daughter in dealing with it or both. Discussing whether or not her daughter has to engage in the assigned group activities may be helpful in lowering the stress, so that actual learning can take place. And in general, being there allows mom the flexibility to be close to provide a lot of guidance, or just to be nearby in order to reassure her daughter that if she gets into any scrapes, she won’t have to handle them on her own.
Both a helicopter parent and a scaffolding parent will say they are engaging because they want to support their child’s success, and both may even become a little confrontational in order to achieve their ends. It can be difficult to distinguish between the two from the outside. Sometimes it’s even hard to determine from the inside — I frequently discuss this with parents who are not quite sure whether the interventions they are setting up for their kids are appropriate or not. So here’s my handy-dandy question to help clarify these situations:
Are you keeping your child from having to stretch, or are you shoring them up so they are able to stretch? Scaffolding is the latter — filling the developmental gaps so a child can grow in an area that would not be available to them otherwise. Our fictional mother above is thinking in terms of how to mitigate the stress on her daughter’s brain so it is free to engage and learn, not so that her child doesn’t have to do experience difficulty, or take a risk that might endanger her grade. As long as we adults are providing scaffolding, those yoga props of development, the support we offer will be appropriate and our children can grow to be their most complete selves.