Providing Support to Help Youth Solve Problems on Their Own

Scaffolding indicates providing dynamic, temporary, and individualized supports until learners can stand on their own.

Staff can scaffold youth progress on projects by balancing:

  • Stepping in to provide assistance and input as needed to help youth solve problems and learn (e.g., helping youth develop strategies when stuck or unsuccessful); and
  • Stepping back to support youth’s increasing independence in their work as their skill grows and to allow youth space to struggle with challenges.

Scaffolding begins with training and modeling and supplying sufficient structure. Staff sometimes help steer youth away from things that may not succeed, for example, by involving youth in discussion of whether a task is beyond their current skill set and what to do about it. In some programs, staff position themselves as collaborators. In others, their role is more of a coach, judiciously leading from behind (e.g., stepping in and stepping out as needed) to help keep youth on track, yet ensuring that agency and ownership remain with the youth. Staff tend to provide feedback to youth in ways that minimize adult authority and support youth agency, for example, by posing guiding questions, suggesting options, and emphasizing that the final choice lies with youth. However, they will exercise adult authority when needed to ensure youth’s physical and emotional safety and prevent projects from creating legal or other problems for the youth organization. Overall, the staff provide input that balances letting youth learn from trying things (including mistakes and failure) with not allowing them to become overwhelmed or frustrated.

Natalie Cooper at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM), highlighted the evolving nature of scaffolding as it changes over time:

Quote markStaff are more like teacher in the beginning and evolve to become more like a coach or a counselor. In the beginning, it’s really just establishing things. It’s very structured, but it changes as the kids become more comfortable. The more confident they feel in their decision making, the more they’re willing to take leadership roles. It doesn’t require an adult to step up and be a leader. Towards the end we’re saying that they are our bosses. They’re telling us what they need from us and holding us accountable to get the job done.

The key to successful scaffolding is to keep challenge and frustration at levels that support growth and perseverance and relate to youth in a way that empowers them. Victoria Guidi at Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory (PWBF) uses several strategies to encourage youth to persevere towards a goal. No matter what, she remains firm with her expectation that they can do what is asked of them. She may cite examples from other times where she’s seen the youth complete a similar task or reassure them that she’s not giving up on them. If youth are visibly frustrated, Victoria might check in with them and begin a conversation, helping them to evaluate their progress or performance, keeping the feedback focused on the work, not the individual.

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

When do you know it’s time to step in or step out with youth?