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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

What Should a Child Learn Next? Choosing what to Teach Next Based on the Zone of Proximal Development

Whether you are a parent or a clinician trying to teach a child new skills, you may discover that sometimes the goals you set for the child are too challenging and sometimes they aren’t challenging enough.

One way of identifying what to teach a child next is based on using the child’s “zone of proximal development.”

The zone of proximal development, or ZPD, refers to the skills that a person can do with minimal assistance and that they generally cannot do independently. So, basically, ZPD refers to those skills that are just above the level of where a child currently functions.

One theory of learning is that people learn new things by their interactions with other people around them. They learn from other people who have knowledge and abilities that they currently do not have. This is the foundation of the concept of the zone of proximal development identified by psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.A more skilled person can help teach a child a new skill by using behavior analytic concepts such as prompting, shaping, reinforcement, and so on, to help guide the child to display the skill accurately. Eventually the more skilled person can fade their assistance and encourage the child to perform the skill more independently.

The more skilled person may be teaching a child a new skill intentionally or unintentionally. Parents, teachers, and clinicians may purposefully identify a new goal for a child to learn and then take planned out actions to help the child learn the identified skills. On the other hand, these same people or even peers or siblings may teach a child a new skill without having a previously developed teaching strategy in mind.

In Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development, scaffolding is used to describe anything that is used to help the child perform the identified skill. This scaffolding, whether it is a physical prompt, a stimulus prompt, a task analysis, or any other form of assistance, may be reduced over time to help the child function more independently.

A child’s zone of proximal development should be assessed frequently to ensure that the child is continuing to be challenged in an appropriate manner to help them learn and develop in the best way that suits their abilities and needs.

The zone of proximal development is a concept that basically refers to identifying the skills that are just above the current level of functioning that a child experiences. By identifying the next skills just above the child’s current skill level, then providing scaffolding (or assistance) in a way that helps the child display the identified skills accurately, and then fading out the need for scaffolding, you can help a child to learn new things and become more independent.

What Should a Child Learn Next? Choosing what to Teach Next Based on the Zone of Proximal Development

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2020). What Should a Child Learn Next? Choosing what to Teach Next Based on the Zone of Proximal Development. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from