In this episode, I share my favorite skill-teaching technique that I have used with my sons for the last 18 years.
The technique is based on a concept known as the "zone of proximal development" (aka Z.P.D.) first popularized by famed Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.
The best time to help your children learn new and challenging skills is when they are in the Z.P.D.
Learn how to recognize when your child is in the zone, and how your assistance can lead to exponential growth.
[00:00:24] Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. In today's episode, I want to share what I believe is one of the most important human learning and development theories out there, and one that I have personally put into practice while raising my sons for the last 1820 years, and for that matter, what I try my best to use when mentoring my prep students. It's not as easy to implement with prep students from afar as it is with my own children, but the idea is the same. The concept, which is part of Lev Vygotsky's theory of learning and development, is known as Z PD. That's Zulu. Papa Delta ZIP stands for the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is defined as the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult assistance, or in collaboration with more capable peers in a family setting that might be an older brother or sister. The term proximal refers to those skills or those competencies that the learner is close to mastering or right on the verge of mastering. But not there yet. And zip D is the period of time or the moment. Where well-timed and well calibrated instruction normally from a parent is the most beneficial. The goal is to be able to time the instruction of a certain skill just as your child is bumping up against the edge of their own ability, meaning they wouldn't be able to pull it off on their own.
[00:02:05] And you help them and you get them over the hump. And with that little push, as little push as possible to help that light bulb go off for them, they feel like they did something special. They figured something out. They learned a new skill. They get a jolt of confidence. This is exactly where you want to operate as often as possible as a parent or a teacher or a coach. And ideally, you do this over and over and over and over again for as long as possible. This usually means until your child becomes a junior or senior in high school. Now, that's the perfect scenario. You have full visibility of what your child is doing at all times. You can time up your intervention. You have the right skill and temperament and touch to teach them how to get over their specific area of challenge, but nothing more. That's the gold standard. Now, as we all know, life is not that perfect. We don't have full visibility of our children at all times. We may not have the skill to help them at just the right time with just the right amount of encouragement and guidance. So what happens on either end of that zone of proximal development? Let's start with a task that is super easy. One that requires no intervention, no assistance. For instance, if you poured a dozen goldfish crackers on the table, you would not have to instruct a three year old on how to eat those goldfish. It would just happen. There's no assistance needed there. They have mastered that skill and thus there's little in the way of growth or learning of a new skill. At the other end of the zone of proximal development is the scenario where the task is too difficult for the child to figure out on their own without assistance.
[00:03:56] For example, a child trying to take the cap off a prescription pill bottle where you have to press down and then twist at the same time. In most cases, hopefully, a child would not be able to figure that out without outside assistance. That's why it's called childproof. A child would have to be taught how to complete this two step process without the assistance. A child might give the bottle maybe 10 seconds of effort and then move on to something else. The point here is that if it's too difficult a task without some kind of teaching or coaching or supervision, there's no learning, no growth, no development, and no success. Because the child gives up and they move on to something else that they're more comfortable with or that gives them some type of immediate feedback. So in a perfect world, you would observe your child, and as soon as they encounter a task that's a bit out of their skill set. And of course, legal and safe to the point where they want to give up and move on, you would swoop in and give them just enough of a clue to keep them engaged and working on the problem. You don't want to solve the problem for them. You just want to keep them marginally interested and at the same time challenged. And then you sit back and you watch them continue to work out the problem and you have to let them struggle for a while. And as a parent, this can be the hard part. It's very tempting to jump in and try to fix the problem to make them happy. But you must resist. And just as they're about to give up again, you swoop in again and give them one more piece of instruction to get them a little bit further along.
[00:05:42] And in this theoretical example, you would continue to provide just the slightest bit of help to maintain that forward progress. And ideally, eventually they figure out how to do it, quote unquote, on their own. And the key is you want them to think that they were largely responsible for solving the problem on their own. You don't want them to think that you've been hovering around and observing them and intervening at just the right time to keep them on task. If they figure out your dastardly plot, then they'll begin to expect that you're going to bail them out every time something gets a little bit challenging. Obviously, you don't want that to happen. This is the delicate dance that we as parents and coaches and mentors need to master. So how does this work practically? We obviously don't live in a lab. We don't have 24 hour surveillance on our kids. So I'd like to try to relate some personal anecdotes of what I've done with my sons over the years. I'm not suggesting that these are perfect examples of putting the theory into practice, but it's what I've done to test the efficacy of this idea. And by and large, I've felt like we've had a pretty good track record. But obviously results may vary based on a whole bunch of variables. The idea is that these stories, these anecdotes might give you an idea as to how you might implement something similar with your children, with what they care about. If you think it's a good idea. First, let me lay out how this theory works when it comes to parenting. On the one extreme, there is the limited to no parent involvement extreme where kids are at home by themselves, they're playing video games, they're swiping on their phone for hours at a time.
[00:07:29] There's no observation, there's no intervention, there's no challenge, and thus no growth. On the other end of the spectrum is too much parent involvement. This is the scenario where you still make your 11th grade or lunch every morning, including a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which you take the crusts off of for them, or you're constantly hovering around them trying to eliminate every conceivable obstacle in their way. The typical snowplow parent. The third. And the middle option is the Goldilocks parental involvement, where you are somewhere in between those two extremes. This is where you're trying to keep your child in that zone of proximal development as often as possible. Where you are casually observing what's going on but not too quick to solve the problem. You hang around, you assess, and when need be, you drop in with a golden piece of advice or a suggestion to keep them going. Now, I'm sure we've all been a part of each of these different phases at different times in our lives. My goal has been to be in that middle category, that Goldilocks zone, as much as possible. And mind you, keeping your child in the zone of proximal development is very labor intensive indeed. It's not for the faint of heart. For one, you need to be around your kids a lot. You can't observe them and help them if you're not with them a lot. Second, you have to know when to intervene and when not to. To make sure that your child still feels like they have ownership of the skill that they're learning. And third, you have to know how to give them just the right amount of information for them to complete the very next task, or at least to continue the task.
[00:09:16] And this is a very delicate tightrope to balance on. Let me try to give you some real world examples. Let's start with shooting a basketball. Shooting a basketball correctly can be a complicated skill, and it's very easy to do incorrectly when you're just starting out, especially when you're on your own. When you learn to shoot a basketball, it's important to start with the fundamentals. Hands in the correct positions. Feet just right balance. Follow through the whole nine yards. But how do you do this with an eight or a nine year old on a ten foot hoop? Well, you can't. There's no way to teach somebody that young The correct fundamentals with a regulation ball and a ten foot hoop. They're not strong enough, They're not skilled enough. They're not mature enough to handle something like that. So a child will either not be interested in basketball because it's too hard or they do their best without assistance. So how can you fix this? Well, in our backyard, we have one of those easily adjustable backboards that we can move from ten feet all the way down to eight feet. And of course, we used an appropriately sized basketball for a smaller hands for eight, nine year olds. I would go out in the backyard. I would painstakingly show them how to hold the ball, where to put their elbows and feet and finger pads, how to release the ball. And since the basket and the rim was so low, they got a lot of success. They made a lot of baskets using the correct form. And we did this over and over and over. And I provided the smallest dose of instruction possible to get the desired outcome. And as they got older and stronger, we gradually moved the rim up more and more.
[00:11:03] And they continued to have success because they learned the skill while in that zone of proximal development. If I was not there assisting, moving the basket down, getting a smaller ball, tweaking every angle of every body part. They would have. Maybe given up because it was too hard established bad habits by just hooking the ball up. They probably would not have made a lot of baskets and probably would have gotten pretty disinterested in basketball. Instead, they love basketball. They all have great shots and they'll beat me now and horse because I was able to coach them while in that zone of proximal development. How about shooting firearms similar to shooting a basketball? You don't start out with a shotgun where the sound and the kickback and the power would freak any child out. Instead, we start with Nerf guns and we perfect their forward leaning shooting posture. Then we move to paintball. Then we move to airsoft. Which, by the way, if you haven't seen airsoft weapons, they are very realistic, especially with respect to handling and the realism of the weapons. And eventually, as teenagers, we graduate to legitimate pistol and rifle work. It's a slow progression. In the beginning, there's all kinds of things that go wrong. Too much trigger finger, too little trigger finger. Anticipating the crack. Bad side picture. All of these skills require assistance from someone who knows what they're doing. Especially when we're talking about firearms here. And that's why it's a good example of operating in the zone of proximal development, because with no instruction, it's very difficult to master the skill. Not to mention how dangerous it could be. So that's not good. And with too much instruction where every challenge is snow plowed away, the student never really feels confident in their own abilities.
[00:12:57] A student needs that little bit of instruction at just the right time to remain interested and engaged, to stay safe and to progress to the next level. Head out exercise in general. This is an important one to start off slowly, especially with kids. For one. Most kids are not strong, so it's important to start out with the easy stuff and then move on to the harder stuff. Otherwise, you're risking turning them off exercise completely. On the other hand, once they get a taste of what it's like to be strong and to perform well athletically, many kids begin to take their athleticism to the next level on their own. And that's where you want to be. The easiest example that I can think of is pull ups with no assistance. Most teenage boys and girls will struggle to do even one pull up. Pull ups are very hard to do because when you're hanging on that bar with your dead weight, trying to pull yourself up. Most kids make almost no progress because it's one of these all or none exercises. You can either do a pull up or you can't start to do a half a pull up. And unfortunately, this is the case for most teenagers. Now, they may writhe around a little bit and get a half a pull up in there if they're lucky. But that's about it. And that's no fun. And then you would probably move on to different activities. No pull ups for you. So obviously, this is a bad zone to be in. However, if you had a coach who suggested that you use a thick resistance band wrapped around the bar and then under your knees, that would help you do the initial pull up by booing you up and artificially helping you do that pull up.
[00:14:42] You might take a second crack at it. That's how I've coached all of my sons and other prep boilers. How to do pullups. We start with a thick resistance band to assist you in the beginning until you build the strength and muscle memory and you develop correct form and then slowly wean yourself off that band into doing unassisted pull ups. My 14 year old son just had a big strength breakthrough recently. He had been using our thick green resistance band for months with not a lot of progress, frankly. The Green Band didn't work overnight, but at least he was seeing some forward movement and he kept at it because he at least could do a few pull ups, assisted pull ups, and then one day he starts cranking out 15 pull ups with the green band. And I said, okay, I don't know what's gotten into you, but it's time that we retire the Green Band and we put you on the bar on your own unassisted. So he jumps up on the bar, no green band, and knocks out six good pull ups. After starting from maybe one a few months ago. Needless to say, that excited him. Now he won't be embarrassed at water polo tryouts when they do a pull up test and he can actually do a few. Once again, if you have someone who can assist and give advice on how to improve a skill at just the right time, and you help them work through that challenge and keep them coming back for more. Eventually many of them come back to master the skill. What about reading, especially these days? Developing a love for reading and a strong reading ability can be a challenge for students and adults alike with access to short, funny, highly curated pieces of entertainment designed just for us right from our phones.
[00:16:31] It's no wonder that reading has taken a backseat. So if you're in the zone where reading is so easy that you're not engaging and you have a lot of other things to do on your phone, chances are that you're not going to push yourself to become a better reader. Why master the skill of reading when it seems irrelevant to a teenager? So how do we combat this? The ways that I've intervened and tried to get my sons into the zone of proximal development when it comes to reading are as follows. Method number one, make sure he has access to reading content that he finds interesting, and that may not include Shakespeare. By the way, it could be sports, teen romance, whatever it is to keep them reading and challenging themselves. Number two. Creating a ridiculously low bar so that my son could not justify not reaching it. For example, I'd ask him to read one chapter a night, which probably amounted to 6 to 8 pages. That's obviously doable. Remember to get to the zone of proximal development. You just need them to keep up the skill with a little bit of challenge over time until it becomes easier and easier and then theoretically more enjoyable. Making the ask. Short and sweet is one way to do that. And then the last method I would call read books with my sons if needed, which means I would buy two of the same book and we would both read the book together and we would compare notes every morning. This makes it more engaging because we want to hear what the other person thinks about what's happening in the book. It also keeps us accountable to one another. These are just a few methods that may help you assist your child in progressing in this challenging skill by putting them squarely in the zone of proximal development.
[00:18:25] What about rocking? Rocking is hiking with weight on your back. Normally a backpack are what the military calls a rucksack. The weight could be as little as five or £10 all the way up to 50, 60, £70. It's a great aerobic and anaerobic exercise with countless benefits. It's also a skill that most teenagers would not really think to do on their own. When I introduced my sons to Rucking, we started without any backpacks. What we call a slick slick means that you go on a hike with no weight in your backpack. It's basically hiking. We would drive to KAOS Mountain, which is a well-known hiking spot near our house. I think the elevation is probably 1600 feet, pretty much straight up. Not crazy, but it takes a good 25 minutes to get up going at a pretty good clip. And my sons would start hiking cows Mt. Slick at what I would call a recreational pace, a fun pace. And we'd go back every few weeks and we'd pick up the pace, and then we would start timing ourselves going up the hill. So we have a benchmark. And the next time we tried to beat our net our last time, eventually we would start to jog up a cows mountain to try to beat our best hiking times. And only then did I introduce them to the rocks again, which are backpacks with some weight in them. We started out with a little bit of weight and slowly added more weight over the weeks. Recently, one of my sons got to the point of running up and down Cal's mountain twice with a £50 rucksack on wasn't a problem. This progression is a good example of training in the zone of proximal development. It's obviously not too easy.
[00:20:09] They needed some assistance. They didn't do it on their own. They had me there giving advice about pacing and technique and when to add the weight and how to wear the rucks. But over time, they actually did the rucking they sought out and met the challenge in front of them, which made them very satisfied with their progress. I didn't do the ruck for them. I went along with them. I supported them. But they also had to do the work. This is the zone you want to be in. How about home improvement jobs? Let's say the garbage disposal goes dead and we have to replace it. I would ask one of my sons to figure out how to remove the garbage disposal, and they would stare blankly at the sink and not even really know enough to look under the sink. So I'd give them a clue. Hey, how about looking under the sink? And they'd crawl under the sink and they'd still not know where to start. So I'd point to the flange on the neck of the garbage disposal and suggest that why don't they start there? And this would go on and on and on until the unit was finally removed and replaced. Now, that job took four times longer than it would have had I done it. But that would take away all the challenge. It's easy to see someone else do it. Even if you're faking like you're paying attention and that you could do it on your own someday, that rarely happens. They have to get their hands dirty. They have to make the mistakes themselves. So for each step, if they couldn't figure it out and they had given it a legitimate shot, I would show them what they were missing out on or what they weren't seeing.
[00:21:42] Maybe it was the way they were holding the wrench. Maybe they were pushing the wrong way. Maybe they were using the wrong tool. I would take the tool reoriented and have them try again. It got to the point where they would eventually work really hard to not need my advice. It was like a game. How far can I do this before Dad needs to bail me out once again. I spent a lot of time ensuring that they were in that zone of proximal development for as long as possible. Another fixed story. We recently converted a chest freezer in our garage into a cold plunge bath where we sit for 3 minutes in 36 degree water for the health benefits. Part of that conversion process was using a hand caulking gun to seal off all the seams on the inside of the freezer so that it was waterproof. So instead of just doing the sealing myself, I would hand the caulking tube and the caulking gun to my son and say, Do you know how this works? And it would turn into a challenge. Can they figure out how to use this without me telling them? And they'd figure out how to insert the tube into the gun, but then the trigger wouldn't work and they'd be confused and they'd get a little frustrated and they'd start manipulating and adjusting until boom, They figured out that the trigger was locked and how to unlock it. And once they saw how to release that lock, the light bulb goes off and the caulking gun finally works. This is an example of working in the zone of proximal development. And I was there observing just in case he got to the point where he was really stumped. This caulking job was not a particularly tough task, and it would have been pretty easy for me just to do it.
[00:23:20] But where is the development for my son in that? The student needs to get their hands on it, get stuck, get anxious. Problem solve and see their way through to the solution. Some of that problem solving time will require no intervention. Great. That's the goal. Other times you might have to say a quick phrase like make sure the trigger isn't locked and that will do the trick. This is the magical moment. What's the smallest amount of advice you can give to allow them to figure out the problem on their own? And lastly, what about computers? I'm not a computer guy, but for all of you computer wizards out there, we all know how frustrating it is when someone else is controlling the mouse and the keyboard and you're trying to explain to them what to do because it's so easy and obvious to you, but not to them. You just want to grab the controls and shove them. Instead, you have to watch them as they clumsily hunt and peck around for the right keyboard combination or the right function or the dropdown menu. You have to let them hunt around. I know it takes a lot more time and it's super annoying and it's super frustrating, but they have to be the ones with their fingers on the controls or they will never think that they fixed the problem and you will have missed the zone. Okay. So obviously, as I said, these examples are extremely labor intensive. It takes a lot to be around this much to make the appropriate observations, to be patient, to intervene at the right time with the right tone, to have the skills necessary to help to keep the kids engaged. Lest we forget, parenting is a full time job.
[00:25:02] But what if you don't have a lot of time with your kids to help them get into these CPD teaching zones? How else can you get your kids to operate in the zone of proximal development? Well, one way is to have multiple kids. This is the old fashioned way. A younger sibling can observe an older sibling performing a particular task, and then they can replicate it on their own. Or the older sibling can intervene with their younger sibling and take on the role of the teacher. This is very common. If there are no older siblings to model from and learn from, then maybe your child can learn by playing with older kids. Maybe they have friends who are a year or two older than them and who can take the care to help them out. These friends can get them into that zone of proximal development. Certainly older family members, uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends of the family, they can always help out in this regard. Teachers, hopefully, are people who should be aware of how and when to get their students into the zone of proximal development. This can be hard when there is 36 students in a single class, obviously, but the best teachers can figure out a way sometimes. And the last way, which seems to be very common these days, is through YouTube. As soon as your child hits that brick wall, where can they figure out the next step? If there's no parent around or older sibling or friend who's older, it's second nature for them to take out their phone and pull up a YouTube tutorial to help them finish the job. And of all uses of the phone, that would be a great use. YouTube can help your children get to and through the zone of proximal development.
[00:26:44] So here's the bottom line. If you want your kids to develop skills as they're growing up, be they academic, athletic, financial, social, manual dexterity, you name it, do what you can to get them into the zone of proximal development, the place where they are challenged and curious and not defeated. And with some assistance, they're able to solve the problem themselves. And once they build up enough of these skills and enough confidence in their own abilities, they're going to be off to the races. They will believe that things are figure out a goal and that they can rely on themselves. And that is where you want to be. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for the continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents. Receive weekly videos from me or I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC network scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in Prep Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore years. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind, go to prep well Academy dot com and enroll today. If you know a parent with a middle school or high school that might find this helpful, please share the episode with them and give us a rating if you get a chance.
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