Are You Scaffolding or Rescuing?

When I first started teaching, I avoided the students who were low. Not because I was afraid of them or because they were difficult but more so because I wasn’t exactly sure how to help them. I often spent my time doing all the talking and telling them to do this or do that, and sometimes I even got the pencil out and jumped in! I never really gave the students a chance to do the work. I was doing more work than they were. Instead of scaffolding…dare I say it? …I was rescuing them.

Scaffolding instruction for struggling students is an important step that many teachers need to be taking - and sometimes, teachers are rescuing students rather than scaffolding instruction for them. This post helps identify the difference between scaffolding and rescuing and helps you better understand what scaffolding instruction looks like.

I had heard the word “scaffolding” being floated around a lot when I was teaching, but honestly, I had no clue what it meant. I didn’t want to ask anyone for fear someone might think, “What kind of teacher doesn’t know what that means?” After hearing the word about 5,000+ times, one day I decided to look it up in the privacy of my own home. That was when the realization of what I had been doing to my students – the disservice – sunk in. Did they teach me this in teacher college (I know it’s not called that, but it’s funny, right)?  (I’m sure they did.) That’s when I learned all about scaffolding vs. rescuing.

The Difference Between Scaffolding and Rescuing

So, what is the difference between scaffolding and rescuing? They’re both helping behaviors, but which one should you be using in the classroom, and which one is better for the students? Are we rescuing students without realizing that we’re rescuing them, such as what I had done?  How do you scaffold for students?  

Often times, rescuing happens most when we don’t have a strong plan in place for the scaffold or when we skip a step in the scaffolding process. Think back to my example – I had no idea how to help the lower level students. I had no plan! When scaffolding, the student works just as hard or harder than the teacher. The teacher facilitates, supports, models, and encourages. She (or he) does not take over but instead provides just the right amount of support to make it easy for the student to learn.

Frequently, what happens is that we go to our lower students and start to think, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, that it’s going to be too hard. So, instead of challenging them, we tend to make it a bit easy for them. Sometimes we do raise the bar, but these students have learned helplessness and know that if they wait long enough, you will feel sorry for them (or with pressure of time, like I always felt) and just jump in and do it.

Usually, when we rescue, we do most of the talking. We don’t provide wait time, nor do we provide open-ended questions that allow students to use critical thinking. We need to provide learning tasks that have a little bit of a challenge, build a sense of competence, and, using the gradual release of responsibility, create independence.

Scaffolding is about creating just the right amount of support students need to master their learning goals. It could be something as simple as building background knowledge, using word walls, creating a personal dictionary, pre-teaching vocabulary, or utilizing graphic organizers. Any type of scaffolding strategy will work!

The most important point is to make sure that you are not rescuing your low level students but instead challenging them. When we rescue our students, it helps us feel great about ourselves, and it does feel like we are helping, but really, we are creating a disservice to our students.

Scaffold – not rescue! 🙂



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