When I think about Pamela's abilities, I can rattle off things she can do completely independently: zipping her pants, using the microwave to reheat food, adding and subtracting fractions with the same denominator, turning a whole into a fraction and vice versa, writing ten sentences with the syntax she has mastered, etc. Pamela can do even more with a little guidance from me: zipping a jacket once I get it started, baking simple recipes when I help her with measuring correctly, converting mixed fractions to improper fractions (and vice versus) when she sees she is stuck ad asks for help, writing an organized paragraph when I set up sentence strips based on her oral narration, etc. Some things are completely beyond Pamela's reach right now, even with help: flossing her teeth, making a recipe GF/CF, multiplying fractions, writing a research paper with at least 1,000 words, etc.
The tasks I put in red represent Pamela's actual development. The tasks I put in purple and blue are her potential development, or things she should be able to do independently in the future. The ones in purple are in the zone of proximal development, meaning tasks she can do with my guidance in helping her to solve problems. To help her master these future skills, Laura Berk suggests,
Rather than transmitting ready-made knowledge to a passive child or giving a child tasks for which he or she already has the requisite skills, the adult's role is to engage in dialogue with the child--by observing, conversing, questioning, assisting, and encouraging. During that dialogue, the adult continually assesses the child's progress and creates the "zone" by keeping the task "proximal"--slightly above the child's level of independent functioning (page 41).
Adults can create this zone in several ways. First, they can use shared understanding. Second, they can build a support system through a variety of techniques: scaffolding (joint problem solving, self-regulation, and warmth and encouragement) and conversation (narrative and theory of mind). Instead of writing a lengthy blog, I will cover these ideas in later posts.
I will conclude with another parallel to Charlotte Mason who had a grasp of proximal development. She knew that some children were ready for skills like learning the alphabet on their own schedule and recommended waiting until a child showed an interest. She understood that interaction between adult and child worked well when the child actively pursues learning the alphabet with the adult there to answer questions, make observations, assist in letter formation and information, etc. Although the zone was not part of her vocabulary, she discouraged adults from rushing children into something outside of the zone of proximal development.
The Alphabet.––As for his letters, the child usually teaches himself. He has his box of ivory letters and picks out p for pudding, b for blackbird, h for horse, big and little, and knows them both. But the learning of the alphabet should be made a means of cultivating the child's observation: he should be made to see what he looks at. Make big B in the air, and let him name it; then let him make round O, and crooked S, and T for Tommy, and you name the letters as the little finger forms them with unsteady strokes in the air. To make the small letters thus from memory is a work of more art, and requires more careful observation on the child's part. A tray of sand is useful at this stage. The child draws his finger boldly through the sand, and then puts a back to his D; and behold, his first essay in making a straight line and a curve. But the devices for making the learning of the 'A B C' interesting are endless. There is no occasion to hurry the child: let him learn one form at a time, and know it so well that he can pick out the d's, say, big and little, in a page of large print. Let him say d for duck, dog, doll, thus: d-uck, d-og, prolonging the sound of the initial consonant, and at last sounding d alone, not dee, but d', the mere sound of the consonant separated as far as possible from the following vowel.
Let the child alone, and he will learn the alphabet for himself: but few mothers can resist the pleasure of teaching it; and there is no reason why they should, for this kind of learning is no more than play to the child, and if the alphabet be taught to the little student, his appreciation of both form and sound will be cultivated. When should he begin? Whenever his box of letters begins to interest him. The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters; and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him. But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play (pages 201 to 202).
My neurotypical son learned his alphabet before we realized what he was doing. We gave him an alphabet wooden puzzle for Christmas when he was two years old. While I was running around the house doing chores or working with Pamela, he would ask, "Wha' dis?" and I would distractedly answer him. He knew his alphabet by the time he turned three. And, as he was a strong-willed, contrary little thing, I just know had I introduced the idea of learning his alphabet, he would have turned ten years old before learning it. I am so thankful that being swamped with Pamela's needs prevented me from ruining a good thing!