Build your kid’s independence with ‘I Do, We Do, You Do’

As parents, we can help our kids gain the self-directed learning skills they need by helping them break things down into bite-sized chunks.

When your kid is at school, their teachers use a concept called “scaffolding” to break work into manageable chunks to help students stay in their “sweet spot” of learning, also known as the “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD. The concept of getting in the Zone was developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930s and built upon in the 1970s by psychologist Jerome Bruner, who introduced the theory of scaffolding that is still used in classrooms today. 

Parents can use the key concepts of scaffolding to help their kids get into their Zone, where they are challenged just enough to learn new skills, but not enough to get frustrated or give up. It all starts with a three-step process: I Do, We Do, You Do.

How to use “I Do, We Do, You Do”
  1. I Do: In this stage, parents take steps to set their kid up for success before the project even gets started. Set the stage by marshalling necessary resources, finding an “expert” to learn from, and asking the right questions to get started. 
  2. We Do: Work together to understand the directions and key parts of the project. Problem-solve, collaborate, and offer lots of feedback.
  3. You Do: Let your kid work independently, but stay physically present to answer questions or diffuse frustration that may arrive.
Let’s dig deeper with each of these steps of I Do, We Do, You Do and use train building as a project example. Your kid has received a train set for their birthday, and they’re excited to build it. Here’s how you would use I Do, We Do, You Do to scaffold the project so that it’s within your kid’s “sweet spot of learning,” the Zone.

I Do: Set the stage

Set your kid up for success by: 
  • Marshaling the necessary resources. You have the train kit and instructions, now gather the other necessary resources. In this case, you may need a glue gun, screwdriver set, needle-nosed pliers, wire strippers, and so on.
  • Finding an “expert.” Find an “expert,” someone who has already built the kit. You can probably find a YouTube video or blog post by someone who has tackled this project already. Watch the video by yourself and take note of the building strategies that make this person an “expert.” These tips will come in handy when you’re coaching your kid through the project.
  • Asking the right questions. As you review the video with your kid, ask questions to check their understanding of key steps: 
    • What did they do first?
    • How did they set up their workstation?
    • What tools seem most important?
    • What steps did they take, and in what order, to get started?
    • That was fast—do you want to start pausing the video at key points?
These steps lead very naturally into the next stage of scaffolding: We Do.

We Do: Work together

Work together with your kid on key chunks of the project. Chunking is breaking up a skill or process into smaller parts that can be accomplished to:
  • Keep motivation high by instrumenting ‘quick wins’
  • Make progress towards a motivating outcome while building skills
  • Increase knowledge, skill, and confidence on the part of the learner so that the learner is capable of accomplishing tasks independently. 
To get to independence, start with working together. Using the train example, in the We Do step, you would move step-by-step through the instructions for building the train: 
  • Problem-solve: Watch small chunks of the expert’s YouTube video.
  • Collaborate: Hold pieces of the train together, so your kid can glue them together. Assign each other small jobs as you go and needs develop.
  • Offer feedback: Recall what made the expert successful with their build and offer feedback on how you two could improve your own. 
Parents, here are some questions to ask yourself as you move through the We Do stage:
  1. What are the hardest parts of this task? Perhaps it’s gluing pieces together, perhaps keeping track of all the tiny pieces, perhaps moving through the steps because the process is so long.
  2. How do I get my kid ready to take on these most difficult parts of the task independently? When in doubt, repetition, practice, and talking through how you’re doing things together is key. You’re looking to offer clarity and strategies during this time.
If the point of the project is to have fun building something together, you may never transition into the You Do phase. However, if your goal is to enable your kid to accomplish a set of important tasks on their own, then it will be important to gauge proficiency so that your kid is able to transition into You Do while remaining in their Zone, that “sweet spot” of learning.

You Do: Let your kid work independently

It’s time to let your kid rock and roll solo. Ideally, you’re able to stay physically present, but not staring over your kid’s shoulder. Perhaps you’re making lunch while your kid works independently at the kitchen table, or you’re doing email while your kid works on the floor. The idea is to let your kid know that they’re on their own, but that you’re around if they have questions. You role is to: 
  • Keep watch without jumping in: You can keep an eye on how things are going, and you can be there to help out, but you’re letting your kid have some space. It’s important that you don’t jump in just because your child isn’t doing things your way. Learning is filled with small mistakes, and we’re often our own best teachers.
  • Watch out for frustration: Be on the look-out for frustration. Frustration is not a sign that someone is in their Zone, but that someone is working on a task beyond their Zone and is almost ready to give up. Frustration occurs when someone has moved away from productively working on a task and has begun to be angry at themself, or at the task, or at objects. Frustration could also be a sign of a deeper emotion, such as shame or anger at getting stuck. If you see early signs of frustration, your job is to listen, to offer strategies, to guide. You might start with an “I noticed…” observation to kickstart an intervention. “I noticed you sound frustrated. Is everything okay? How are you feeling?”

A note on frustration
You’ll find that sometimes, the frustration takes over and your kid needs to walk away for awhile. Sometimes, they never come back to the task. In that case, your job is to remain calm and remember that your frustration will not help your kid or the train set. However, very often, your child will rise to the occasion, move beyond the frustration, and accomplish tasks independently that would have been unthinkable days before.

This pride of creation and independent problem solving stay with us through life, and build feelings of fulfillment, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and growth mindset, while also fostering an identity as a capable and agentic person.

“I Do, We Do, You Do” is an effective tool for scaffolding any project, so that your kid can feel challenged and engaged while learning to be a self-directed learner.

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