by Hanna Vock


In our opinion, a high level of intrinsic motivation is a necessary component of giftedness. (See: Giftedness – A Definition.)

Gifted young children feel little resistance and effort when learning; they experience joy and pleasure when they tackle new challenges. They find the successful completion of a task, the „aha“ effect of understanding new contexts, so satisfying that they are always on the lookout for new challenges.

In contrast, extrinsic attempts to motivate them are relatively ineffective. „Why don’t you draw a nice picture, then your mum will be happy“ or „When you’ve done that nicely, you’ll get a little sticker from me“ often don’t entice gifted children out of their reserve, even in kindergarten.

Kindergarten teachers must learn to deal with the fact that most gifted children often cannot be reached by extrinsic attempts at motivation, which work so well with many other children.

However, by consistently addressing the child’s intrinsic motivation, a great deal can be achieved.

… in a nutshell …

Gifted young children have a strong intrinsic motivation to learn. However, this personality trait is sensitive, it can shrink and be lost at an early age if the child’s social environment, especially the parents and kindergarten teachers, do not carefully nurture this motivation.
This nurturing consists of giving the child sufficient opportunities to be active at her or his level of cognitive development and to experience success.

A certain type of gifted child is very broadly motivated, interested in almost everything new. These children are generally eager to learn, to accumulate knowledge and to understand contexts.

Another type of gifted children directs their motivation early – already at pre-school age – to a specific „domain“, to a specific subject area. According to my (not representative) long-term observations, these preferences are often surprisingly stable. The later field of study, the later profession could already be guessed at in the child’s early interests. Here I see an interesting question for research. I will only give a few examples here:

– A girl who was already intensively interested in how people interact with each other within the kindergarten group at the age of five is now studying psychology.

– A girl who had a very lasting interest in how adults interact with children and how they should do it, even at pre-school age, studies education.

– A boy who was already interested in plans, transport networks and systems at the age of 5 to 6 became a computer scientist.

– A girl who systematically studied – from the pre-school age – the different ways in which written language can be used became a journalist.

– A boy who listened with great interest to my stories about how life used to be and had many questions about it, is studying history and is particularly interested in the history of everyday life.

A problem arises for the children when their domain does not play a role either in the family or in kindergarten / primary school.

Respect motivation

In my opinion, one of the main goals of good advancement of the gifted children at kindergarten should be to respect the child’s strong intrinsic motivation as something very valuable and not to destroy it.

If the child has the inner urge

– to play complicated games,
– to understand difficult stories or problems,
– to conduct extensive experiments,
– to have conversations about „adult topics“,
– to discuss his observations,
– to learn many details and connections about a topic,

then this should also be possible in the kindergarten every now and then. Otherwise, the child’s high motivation is in danger of collapsing.

Since the possibilities in the kindergarten are limited by the often inadequate framework conditions, the main burden of providing the custom-fit cognitive advancement for gifted children lies with the family.

(Learning) Motivation in Danger

Motivation is a disturbable phenomenon. It can also be disrupted and disappear. Then children become unhappy and quite a few of them eventually become underachievers; that is: Par example, at school they do not perform as one might expect because their high level of giftedness.

If the play and learning environment, whether in the family, the kindergarten or the school, does not offer the child enough opportunities for action and stimulation at the child’s developmental level, motivation suffers.

Three aspects need to be considered here. The child needs suitable stimulation and opportunities for action, because

    • 1. it wants to be active extensively at its developmental level. (Extensively, because both the perseverance with a single activity of interest and the time „resilience“ in a day or in a week is unusually large with highly gifted children – they „can’t get enough“),
    • 2. in order to maintain motivation, the satisfaction of having successfully solved a challenging task is needed again and again,
    • 3. it needs social recognition. His abilities and successes must be visible to others in his environment, meet with interest and find confirmation in order to maintain motivation.

These three aspects result in certain tasks for the parents as well as for the educators, because none of this is self-evident in the sense of usual:

Most kindergartens are not adequately equipped for highly gifted children in terms of play materials, activities and projects.
The cognitive interests of gifted children must also be taken into account when purchasing play materials and designing activities and projects.

See also: Which Toys Do Gifted Children Need?
See also: Interesting Games.

If difficult play materials are missing and if projects and excursions are cognitively too simple and not complex enough, the challenges for the gifted child and correspondingly the satisfaction of having cognitively mastered the challenge are missing.

It is no way out to reassure oneself that the child can still learn a lot in other areas (for example, motor or social) in the kindergarten.
It is always necessary to consider how the child can be addressed at his or her cognitive level.

One possibility that does not require additional time
is to consciously use different levels of questions when talking to the children.

For this, please read: How to Promote Thinking.

And also:
Cognitive Advancement in Kindergarten. Gaining Knowledge, Practising the Art of Thinking.
Checklist: Cognitive Advancement

(These two articles are not only about gifted children, but about all children in the kindergarten).

The kindergarten teacher Ilona Lemm wrote at the beginning of her IHVO Certificate Course in her first paper:

„Finally, I would like to say that I am always torn whether M. (6;0) is really a gifted child or he just has a special liking for mathematics. He really enjoyed the different maths games I played with him in his last weeks at kindergarten.

I am mainly concerned about his low intrinsic motivation to learn.

I only met M. last August. Unfortunately, his previous kindergarten teacher was not very well disposed towards him. She described him to us as particularly demanding, aggressive, not obedient and someone who repeatedly breaks the rules.

He obviously does not have an „easy time“ at home either. His mother describes him as very annoying and demanding and says quite openly that she has already beaten him. M. has another little sister and when the mother picks them both up, the daughter’s greeting is very warm, while he is greeted quite coolly.

All this leads me to believe that his motivation to question, understand and learn must have diminished considerably. He has probably been rejected many times and then stopped asking. This assumption frightens me very much and will hopefully make me more attentive in the future when a child has many questions or challenges me in a similar way.

By the way, M. taught himself arithmetic all by himself without the help of adults.“


Is a child’s motivation OK or disturbed?

A good method to assess the motivational situation of children in kindergarten is the Leuven Engagement Scale for Children LES-K (Laevers 1997).
(See: bibliography under „Laevers“).

The Engagement Scale is a process-oriented observation system that is intended to provide kindergarten teachers and primary school teachers with constant clues so that they „do not lose sight“ of the child and its learning processes. Vandenbussche, Kog, Depondt and Laevers (1999) explain the basic ideas and I try to present them here.

The authors consider recognisable well-being and clear engagement of the child in a concrete situation as decisive signs of an ongoing learning process. In other words, they focus on processes that take place in the child.

For them, „well-being“ means „feeling at home“, „being able to be oneself“, „being happy“.

„Engagement refers to the intensity of an activity, the concentration brought to it, it is the degree to which one is absorbed in something, the drive and joy of discovery and exploration.“ (p. 5)

Thus, from the observable engagement of the child, one infers his or her underlying motivation with regard to the opportunities that the kindergarten offers the child.

The Leuven authors list the following as observable characteristics of engagement:

    • Concentration,
    • energy,
    • complexity and creativity,
    • facial expression and posture,
    • perseverance,
    • accuracy,
    • responsiveness,
    • verbal expressions,
    • satisfaction.

These characteristics are defined in detail in the LES-K manual (Laevers, 1997, pp. 12-13).

Gifted children who are chronically underchallenged in their kindergarten, who withdraw, become behaviourally conspicuous or do not want to come to kindergarten would initially be perceived in this approach as children whose well-being and engagement are impaired.

This would simultaneously assume that the child’s further development is at risk.

Although the toolkit was not developed specifically for education of the gifted, it is well suited for becoming aware of gifted children and developing individual, appropriate advancement with the child.

In the section „Special Measures for Children at Risk of Development“ (Vandenbussche et al., pp. 108-115), examples are given of ways in which the (kindergarten) teachers can provide individual developmental stimuli – also in the area of cognitive development.

The basic idea of reading off from the degree of engagement whether a child is developing or stagnating is fascinating. The authors write (ibid., p. 19): „Engagement has nothing to do with the content of an activity, but with its quality…. We use the term ‚engagement‘ when children… devote themselves intensively to an activity. In doing so, they are in a special state, highly concentrated and anxious to stay on task. This intrinsic motivation is high because the activity is something they want to know or get to know more about, which appeals to their urge to explore and experience.“

It is not far from a consistent level of engagement to a state that Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls „flow“. In my experience, many kindergarten teachers observe this state of ongoing (flowing) happiness almost exclusively in the children’s free play. In fact, free, undisturbed play with plenty of time has a high value for the children’s well-being and development.

Other educators report in our trainings that they themselves and also the children have felt a lot of flow not only in free play but also, for example, in challenging projects – and that the children’s free play became more intensive after such activities. They represent that children do not get the impulses for their play from themselves alone, from their playmates and from the material world surrounding them. They also need the targeted stimulation of adults who make their knowledge and experience available to them.

In my opinion, gifted children in particular need, want and are able to process a great deal of stimulation from other, similarly developed children and from clever adults, in addition to a great deal of freedom and time for play.

See on intrinsic motivation: Csikszentmihalyi: The Flow Experience, p. 46 ff. (See bibliography.)
See: Chapter 4.2-4.8 of this manual. There are presented many of relevant experiences by kindergarten teachers.

Motivation and success

A successfully completed activity not only gives satisfaction for the moment, but is also a good basis for further intrinsic motivation. A chain of successes that never breaks for a long time is the best motivator. At first, it is irrelevant whether the success is also seen and recognised by others. In the long run, however, it is social recognition that really inspires.

And here the circle closes:

Gifted children must have opportunities for successful activity. They often define „success“ more narrowly than other children: it has to be really good and, above all, they have to be convinced that it is really good. Since they often make high demands on themselves, this cannot be taken for granted. In my kindergarten group there was a very artistically gifted boy who exclusively produced (in our eyes) great, extraordinary pictures. Most of them, however, ended up torn up in the waste paper basket because he himself did not find them successful.

They also need social recognition, but it should respect their own standards; otherwise the child may feel that she or he is not being taken seriously and may no longer inwardly accept the kindergarten teacher as a „juror“.


Date of publicationin German: December 2015
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see Imprint.

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