What is the zone of proximal development?

By: Sarah Winkler  | 

Where is a child's zone of proximal development?

The concept of the zone of proximal development can be a useful and effective tool to teach and learn in a collaborative way. But before you can teach a learner through this method, you first need to locate his or her zone of proximal development.

In order to figure out where a child is within the zone of proximal development, teachers and parents ask questions and observe a child's unique learning style. You can then track the child's current learning needs and the shifts in these needs as the child develops. By doing so, you can chart what the child has already learned and take into account what the child will master in the future.


When you watch a child play and interact with others, you can see his or her specific methods of communication. Watch for how a child expresses him or herself and how he or she explains concepts to others. You can then categorize the skills the child:

  • Cannot yet do
  • Can do with help
  • Can do alone

Once you've found out this information, you can then identify the learner's stage of proximal development. There are four basic stages in the zone of proximal development. In stage one, a child is aided by others like teachers, parents or peers on how to complete a task or understand a concept. In stage two, a child provides assistance to himself or herself. In stage three, a child internalizes the method by which to complete a task or understand a concept. In stage four, a child goes through a process of deautomization; that is, the child goes back through the prior stages to learn a new task or concept.

After you've identified a child's zone of proximal development, you can then apply this knowledge when instructing the student to learn new ideas or tasks. On the next page, we'll take a look at how teachers can apply the zone of proximal development in the classroom.