Everyone has a zone of comfort. Everyone also has a zone of panic. In between is a zone of discomfort. In the world of education, this zone of discomfort is called the “zone of proximal development” or “ZPD”, and it’s here in your ZPD where growth opportunities lie.

Diagram showing three concentric circles with the zone of proximal development in between a zone of anxiety and a zone of comfort.

The aim of the teacher working within the zone of proximal development is to “scaffold” the learning for the student, that is: putting in place support structures that build upon one another to help the student reach new levels of insight in the learning process.

Support structures can take different shapes. For example:

  • Guided activities and tools: learning with the aid of some form of tool, technology, or resource.
  • Peer support: learning together with others, where you learn from interactions, shared knowledge, and from the experiences of others going through the learning process with you.
  • Practice: learning in a controlled environment that is designed specifically to allow for failure with minimized consequences.

These support structures aren’t mutually exclusive and, in many ways, the combination of these and other support structures can be an integral part of the coaching process.

Coaching in the Zone of Proximal Development

As a coach, one of my aims in working with my clients is to work in their zone of proximal development. Playing it safe in the zone of comfort is doing a disservice to us both — we may as well be hanging out as two friends having a coffee. Jumping too far ahead, on the other hand, is not only ineffective but also irresponsible — as the coach, one of my key roles is to hold the space in a way that upholds the psychological safety, trust, and confidence of my clients.

Connecting the dots

To use a metaphor for the zone of proximal development: my role as a coach is to hold up a blank canvas, give you the pen, and help you decide what we’re going to draw. As we talk things out, you begin to lay some dots on the page, we’ll number them in sequence based on the picture you want to create, and then when you’re ready, you connect the dots.

Setting “just manageable challenges”

Another part of my role as a coach is to keep my clients moving forward. Unlike therapy or counselling, I’m less focused on the past, and more focused on where we’re going.

We land at an insight. Ok great: And now what? What’s next? What’s the first thing you could do, to move this forward? And what else?

We’re looking for an action that will take you close to the edge of your zone of proximal development, a “just manageable challenge” — something that will push you through a new level of difficulty or discomfort — to help you move closer to the edge of growth than the safety of comfort.

What’s in your zone of proximal development?

Looking at your day-to-day routines, where do most of your activities sit in relation to your zone of proximal development?

Where are you playing it safe? What makes you feel uncomfortable?

What support structures can you put in place to stretch yourself closer to your edge of growth beyond the safety of comfort?

Related Resources

Zone of proximal development

Just Manageable Difficulty

Just Manageable Challenges