Help a Child Become Comfortable with Learning

Mark Maclaine

August 29, 2014

Successful tutors, teachers and educational psychologists have a few techniques that are highly effective in helping students reach their full potential. Most of these techniques centre around the removal of stresses that are limiting those students. One technique involves helping learners to become comfortable with discomfort. When they can let go of the idea that there’s something ‘wrong’ with not knowing all the answers, learning becomes easier and hopefully a lot more fun.



During the last two years of his life, a young soviet psychologist called Lev Vygotsky developed a concept called the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD).[1] This zone is essentially the range of skills that a student can perform with help, but cannot yet perform on their own. Vygotsky believed that a student learns by imitating a teacher, gaining, over time, the ability to do a task alone, thus moving that task out of the zone. It is the role of an educator to keep the ZPD constantly moving forward, encouraging the student to grow.[2]

Karl Rohnke, an American expert in experiential learning, later suggested that people react to situations in three different ways: comfort, stretch and panic. He developed a beautifully simple model that I’ve tried to show in this diagram: image

In the ‘comfort’ zone, the learners are highly familiar with the situation. This includes everything they already know and tasks they can do almost without thinking. Students are comfortable here, feeling like they are in full control. But they are not learning.

At the other end of the scale, in the ‘panic’ zone the situation is highly stressful or can seem dangerous to the learner . In this zone there is often a perception that the skill required for success is so far out of reach that it’s not even worth trying. Students in this zone can be overwhelmed, feeling like they have no control, and may ‘shut down’ entirely.

The trick to growth is to be somewhere in the middle, where the student is slightly uncomfortable but still learning.

Tutor tip: Try drawing the diagram above for students helps them to realise that there’s nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable when learning: like Vygotsky’s ZPD, the best thing about the ‘stretch’ zone is that it’s constantly moving as we learn. This helps students who feel ‘I’m never really getting anywhere’. When students can see that they are getting somewhere (the zone is moving after all!), stress, that would otherwise inhibit learning, is reduced.That said, it’s important for everyone to find a balance between stretching yourself and taking care of yourself in your comfort zone.

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The diagram also helps pupils to recognise when they’ve been pushed into the panic zone. A student who knows it’s normal to feel overwhelmed at times is much more likely to speak up about it, and to seek help; one of the hardest jobs for any teacher or tutor is knowing who’s ‘got it’ and who hasn’t. A child who feels shame may find it hard to approach the teacher, but if your students are comfortable approaching you with concerns you can solve problems early on. The same thing goes for a parent. Opening up this dialogue with children helps them feel comfortable about coming to you if they ever feel overwhelmed in the future.

This week: see what activities you can undertake to place yourself in your stretch zone. Then find ways to help your children or students to do the same.

Fancy getting a  tutor to help stretch your child’s learning? Have a look at the Tutorfair website and take your pick. Here’s a small selection:

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Oliver G - Calm, patient tutor who likes to make learning engaging. Subjects include English, History and German

Helen J - Experienced and enthusiastic tutor who is a qualified teacher. Subjects include French and German

Allan G - Experienced tutor, motivator and life coach. Subjects include Maths, Physics and Computing

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1] Vygotsky lived from 1896 to 1934. His work had largely remained unknown until the 1970s, when it eventually became a central component of the new theories in developmental and educational psychology.

[2] His concept led to the idea of scaffolding, Wood et al. (1976), in which a student should be given regular support and guidance in learning until they are able to undertake these tasks on their own. This is also known as guided or cooperative learning.