how do i challenge parents effectively without undermining the partnership?

Nice & comfort zones  |  Optimal challenge zone  |  Overwhelming zone

Moving across zones  |  Progressive trajectories of challenge  

The fourth and final aspect of living partnership focuses on the need to challenge parents. Challenge is one of the three essential ingredients of impactful partnership (alongside help and possibility). It is also one key way helpers make noticing count. However, knowing when, how and how much to challenge parents can be difficult.

Effective challenge targets an optimal challenge zone between a comfort zone and an overwhelming zone. this relates to the concept of the zone of proximal development

Effective challenge can be mind-expanding because it can add to what parents are capable of and what they think is possible. It can nurture the partnership and pave the way to further challenges down the track. In this way, small challenges can have big effects.


zones main used.png

Overwhelming zone

Too much - degree or pace of change that parents are not ready for

Optimal challenge zone

Challenge parents can take on with appropriate support (zone of proximal development)

Comfort zone

Low or no challenge, but can be important in preparing parents for challenge

Nice zone

Warm and supportive but not on a pathway towards challenge


Effective challenge can be mind-expanding if it adds to what parents are capable of and what they think is possible. It can nurture partnership and pave the way to further challenges down the track. In this way, small challenges can have big effects.

A previous study of a Residential service ([4], see Research) found that effective challenge targets an optimal zone between a comfort zone and an overwhelming zone. This was also found across the diverse service contexts in our Creating Better Futures research.



These ideas are based on the work of Vygotsky, a pioneering child psychologist, who described the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. The ZPD refers to what a person becomes able to do when supported by others when working on a problem [1,2].

The ZPD points to what lies just ahead of what someone is currently able to do independently. When helpers challenge parents, it should be targeted to this zone. For ease of memory we refer to this as the optimal challenge zone (though the technical term is the ZPD).



ready for change?

Thinking about challenge in this way avoids the problem of helpers refraining from challenging parents because they appear not ready for change. Vygotsky’s theory implies that we are all on the cusp of new capacities. We are all poised to enter new territory when others provide appropriate guidance or tools to help us.

Being ready for change is not purely a matter of the parent’s capacity in isolation. All parents are potentially ready for change, provided it is targeted in the challenge zone and not the overwhelming zone. This readiness is a property of their relationships with others and the support available to them.

This shifts the focus from asking ‘Is this parent ready for change?’ to asking ‘What supports can I put in place to help this parent enter her ZPD, or optimal challenge zone?’.

Scholars investigating the ethic of care have argued that the ZPD has an emotional or affective aspect. The ZPD has an interpersonal characteristic that resembles a caring encounter [3]. This is precisely what we found in the Creating Better Futures study and in prior research on a Residential Service [4]. Therefore  the concept of the ZPD is a good fit for enhancing impactful partnership.

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Key concept: the zone of proximal development

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) refers to “The distance between the actual developmental level (ADL) as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” [1]. Although originally developed and defined in relation to children’s learning, it applies equally to the ways helpers support parents in partnership [2]. Effective challenge targets the ZPD, working on what lies just ahead of what parents are currently able to do. Over time, what was previously overwhelming comes to fall within the ZPD, or optimal challenge zone as we call it here.

nice zone and comfort zone

zones nice comfort used.png

Vygotsky wrote that the ZPD lies ahead of the ‘actual level of development’ – what someone is already capable of by themselves. Our two studies suggest that it is helpful to divide this into two zones when thinking about partnership: the ‘nice zone’ and the ‘comfort zone’.

Challenge should always be presented in a kind way. This is not the same as being nice. Helper expertise is needed to build trust and establish the relationship, and some interactions in the nice zone may be useful. While important, the nice zone is not sufficient to deliver significant impacts; the risk is of getting stuck and ‘nice’ becomes ‘too nice’.

The comfort zone also relates to what parents can already do. However, this has the purpose of setting parents up for challenge. This can involve finding out what they are motivated to work towards and what matters to them. It can also involve exploring options for future challenges.

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optimal challenge zone

zones challenge used.png

The optimal challenge zone is the zone of proximal development. It is crucial to impactful partnership, and involves asking parents to do things that are unfamiliar, new, and without certainty of being successful.

Effective challenge has to be doable with support and guidance. Helpers enable parents to move into this zone by providing scaffolding. Scaffolding can take the form of planning or rehearsing, in-the-moment guidance, written reminders or information, emotional support, and so on.

The intention is always that scaffolding will be withdrawn at the appropriate time. The question of readiness is not parents’ readiness for change, but readiness to act independently in what was previously the ZPD (i.e. what used to need to support is now in the zone of doing things by themselves, the actual level of development).

Correct judgement of where a parent’s optimal challenge zone lies and relevant scaffolding set parents up for success when taking on something difficult. In this way, challenge becomes less risky, and more likely to lead to positive outcomes and nurture the partnership relationship.

Expertise is needed to determine when to challenge and what the focus of challenge should be. It is also needed to judge what scaffolding to put in place, and how to withdraw it in a gradual, planned process.

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Overwhelming zone

zones overwhelm used.png

The ZPD does not stretch infinitely ahead of a person: it has a limit. Some challenge will be too much, even with support and guidance in place. Presenting challenge in this overwhelming zone may undermine the relationship, and have negative impacts on parents’ confidence, esteem, and readiness to take on more appropriate challenges.

The boundary between the challenge zone and overwhelming zone often relates to what matters to parents. Parents can be ready to take on significant challenges if they feel that doing so is aligned with what matters to them. But relatively minor challenges that are  misaligned can be experienced as overwhelming or counterproductive.

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Movement across zones

zones eg used.png

Impactful partnership requires careful judgement as to which zone is most appropriate at any one time.

Helpers should avoid the overwhelming zone, but this may be where parents are when they first seek help. Also, other changes in circumstance can mean that what was one in the optimal challenge zone may have become overwhelming.

While effective challenge is located in the optimal challenge zone (or ZPD), not all impactful partnership work is in this zone. Moving in and out of the comfort zone can be important in preparing for challenge and avoiding strain that can cause optimal challenge to slip into overwhelming territory.

In the diagram on the left, a professional establishes a relationship with a parent from a group over several weeks. She sets the parent up for challenge by listening, and moves her into the comfort zone through the group dynamic, building trust and understanding, until the parent invites her to help her at home. In that more private setting, the helper can provide the scaffolding needed to enable the parent to take on challenges that would not otherwise have been possible.

progressive trajectories of challenge

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Findings from our study showed another key feature of ZPD theory applies to challenge in impactful partnership with parents.

What is in the challenge zone (ZPD) initially can become the comfort zone (actual level of development) over time. Appropriate scaffolding helps parents move into the challenge zone. When this is withdrawn and parents can now cope independently with this specific issue or task, this is now their comfort zone. 

A new challenge zone then emerges just ahead of where the comfort zone now lies. In this way, what was once overwhelming can become achievable as the challenge zone advances. Seemingly impossible problems are tackled by focusing on what lies just ahead. This links with the characteristic of partnership as ‘grounded and grounding’. Groundedness refers to connecting with what is happening for families in the here and now. Challenge that targets the ZPD is grounded, but works to what ‘here and now’ might look like in the near future. This gives partnership forward movement while also remaining realistic.

Change often happens through many small steps (see making change happen), – fitting with the framing idea of ‘small things with big effects’. However, sometimes these small steps can lead to significant leaps forward, especially as a result of challenges that build confidence and capacity, thereby changing parents’ sense of what is possible.

Targeting challenge to the ZPD make partnership mind-expanding. Entering the ZPD is not about replacing old ideas with new ones, but about expanding what is possible - focusing on the nature of the solution rather than on the problem. 

For example, a parent is struggling to help her child settle for sleep during the night. The helper targets the ZPD, offering support and guidance just ahead of what the mother is already capable of. These include suggestions for gentle ways to help the child, which are rehearsed in the day and planned for the nights. Rather than focusing on sleep, the parent is focuses on creating a safe sleep space, and being consistent and predictable in the way she supports and comforts the child. Her attention shifts from the problem to the nature of the solution. Over time these become second nature to the parent. The mother’s ZPD has been lifted, and what was previously a challenge needing scaffolding is now something she can do herself. The journey towards bigger change has begun.

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Using the effective challenge resources to enhance your practice

The main worksheet (ready to print on A4 or A3 paper) is designed for practitioners to reflect on their practice. There is also a version that you may find helpful to use in your actual work with families - this contains the main figure and some key prompts.

Worksheet 7 - Challenging effectively (to print on A4)

Worksheet 7 - Challenging effectively (to print on A3)

Effective challenge tool for use with families


[1] Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

[2] Hopwood, N. (2015). Understanding partnership practice in primary health as pedagogic work: what can Vygotsky’s theory of learning offer? Australian Journal of Primary Health, 21(1), 9-13. doi:10.1071/PY12141

[3] Goldstein, L. (1999). The relational zone: The role of caring relationships in the co-construction of mind. American Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 647-673. doi:10.3102/00028312036003647

[4] Hopwood, N. (2016). Professional practice and learning: times, spaces, bodies, things. Dordrecht: Springer.