by Hanna Vock
Devaluations of personality are always bad. If their lives have gone well, adults have developed strategies to protect and defend themselves against it, provided they have a fundamentally positive self-image. But when things have gone so badly that they can no longer value themselves or have to defend themselves more and more angrily against the devaluation they (have) experienced in society, in their family or at work, it is dramatically bad.
These processes of appreciation or non-appreciation already begin in pre-linguistic relationships. But we should be particularly interested here in the gifted children of kindergarten age.
The kindergarten teacher Bianca Arens wrote in one of her assignments for the IHVO Certificate Course:
„Gifted children, with their high sensitivity, sense when their needs are not taken into account and when their personality is devalued. … Devaluations in the family can already be present if the parents do not let the child learn what would correspond to its needs, but prevent this because „it is still too small for this“. Or when a child is labelled as „precocious“ by relatives. … Children often experience that there is something alienating in the expression of their counterpart as a response to his or her expressions, be it in the faces of peers or adults.“
What is a child’s self-concept?
(This paraphrase of the term also applies to adults; but here, as throughout the manual, we are concerned with young children).
The child’s self-concept encompasses the ideas the child has about him/herself: about his/her qualities, character, abilities and relationships to the social environment. It is a complex system that is built up, differentiated and also corrected in early childhood. It generates corresponding emotions, it constantly affects the child’s emotional states.
The building material of this system of ideas and feelings is, on the one hand, the feedback that the child receives from the social environment for its behaviour, and on the other hand, the direct successes and failures that the child experiences in its actions. Genetic and physiological predispositions probably also play a role.
The feedback from the social environment can be linguistic:
„What do you look like again?“ „You’re too little for that.“ Or else, „You can do it.“
The feedback can be body language (especially facial expressions), for example (in the positive) a mother beaming with joy at the fact that the child has passed the swimming test, or (in the negative) a grimace at the towel being soaking wet after the swimming test.
The feedback can consist of actions, for example when the father joyfully joins in to play after the child has asked him to, or for example when the kindergarten teacher takes the plate away from the two-year-old as soon as he eats the mashed potatoes with his fingers.
It is easy to imagine that a child who experiences many negative reactions to his behavioural expressions over a long period of time is in danger of building up a negative self-concept.
And conversely, a child is more likely to develop a positive view of himself if he or she experiences a lot of recognition.
But not only the reactions of the social environment, but also one’s own successes and failures are essential for building up and expanding and rebuilding the self-concept.
Not only does the social environment evaluate the child’s actions (through feedback), but the child itself also evaluates its actions and the results of its actions. This can deviate from the evaluation by the environment, even in a small child. The more critically the child is able to look at itself and its environment, the more it has developed its own criteria of quality.
A child can see a failure where the environment applauds, and it can be satisfied with itself although it feels the dissatisfaction (for example of the parents).
Both deviations are not easy for the child to process, but for the maturation of the self-concept such deviating evaluations are essential.
The self-concept has an impact on the child’s emotional state and motives for action at all times.
What about the gifted children?
One characteristic of gifted children is that they not only think early and thoroughly about the things and phenomena in their environment, but also about themselves. They develop a differentiated self-image earlier than the kindergarten teacher is used to from the other children. A human self-concept has many facets; for example, it also includes the question: Am I liked, am I loved, am I a nice person myself? It also includes the relationship to one’s own body and the way one perceives the surrounding nature and much more.
Here in this paper I would like to shed some light on that area which is about cognitive skills and about achievement, because here there are special opportunities and special problems for gifted children.
See: Specific Problems Gifted Children Face in Kindergarten.
Gifted children reflect and evaluate what they have done earlier and often more thoroughly. They draw conclusions about their own abilities, achievements and place in the group earlier. Due to their intellectual abilities, they develop a complex self-concept early on. This is often not clearly visible to the outside world at first and is therefore often not sufficiently taken into account by the social environment.
Due to their small life experiences, the self-concept of children between the ages of three and five is not yet solidified, it is under construction, and therefore every significant experience of the child can have strong positive or negative effects on his or her self-concept. The interaction with the other children in the kindergarten and the kindergarten teachers provides important building blocks for the child’s self-concept.
Dealing with giftedness as normality
The children should be given the opportunity to overcome feelings of isolation that easily arise in kindergarten when the other children do not share their interests. They should experience in the playgroup that their interests, their thirst for knowledge, etc. are considered normal.
They should have the opportunity to push their limits intellectually and to recognise their limits in being with other children, which they normally cannot experience in their kindergarten group in the intellectual field. This is important for them for a special reason: At the age of three to four, gifted children have often already reached a stage of development where comparison and competition with others play a significant role (which is not the case for many other children until they are 6 to 7 years old). Franz J. Mönks writes on the realistic self-concept of gifted young children:
„At the age of about 3, they already know the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. They relate their own abilities to other children and recognise the differences. They deal with their own identity at a very early age, come to terms with it (usually a central issue in adolescence).“ (in: Small Children – Great Giftedness, p. 33)
See: Bibliography. [Translated by Hanna Vock]
This is why it is so important for the children to be able to be active and affirmed in the very areas in which their strengths lie. If these strengths are not given positive attention and social reinforcement during this developmental phase, negative consequences can result for the self-concept and especially for self-esteem.
Through play and confrontation with other gifted children, the child can find its way out of its constant outsider position in the field of intellectual giftedness. For it can have quite normal changing experiences: Winning is just as possible as losing, understanding can require effort, others know a lot too, and the other child’s idea is actually even better than my own.
At the same time, it may be necessary to relate the children’s special intellectual talents to the possibilities and needs of the other (non-gifted) children.
It is important for their social development and their integration into the kindergarten group and later into the school class that the gifted children find a good balance between self-confidence and enjoyment of their own strengths on the one hand and respect and acceptance of the strengths of the other children on the other. The intellectual isolation that takes place in the playgroup should not lead to fostering arrogant behaviour towards the non-gifted children.
Here, the careful intervention of the kindergarten teachers and close cooperation with the parents are always necessary in the playgroup.
In detail, it is a matter of tolerating for the gifted children,
„that other children sometimes need a little longer, for example, until they have understood certain rules of the game;
that other children cannot speak as well and do not define terms as precisely;
that other children fight and scuffle, although this often seems illogical and repugnant to gifted children.“ (Michael Hollenbach, p. 35f.)
On the other hand, it is important for the self-confidence of gifted children to realise that they may also expect something from the other children: namely that the latter tolerate,
„that gifted children do not feel like repeating certain games for the umpteenth time;
that children are lovable and equal playmates even if they are afraid of climbing or sliding and stay out of fights;
that it can be quite „normal“ to disengage from time to time to pursue one’s own interests such as reading or drawing.“ (ibid)
The importance of explanatory patterns
An example from my counselling practice:
Arne (3;11) could already think a lot and sharply, but still only had the life experiences of a three-year-old.
The early tendency to draw logical conclusions, to think about experiences, to compare oneself with others, to perceive and judge situations in a complex way came into conflict with this small life experience.
This can easily lead to wrong conclusions and violent fluctuations of the self-concept, as can be seen in the following example.
The episode happened when Arne was 3;11 years old and new in kindergarten. He had already learned to play chess at home and wanted to play with his father every evening.
In the first days of his kindergarten time, he saw the big (the six-year-old) children unpack a chess set from a game collection, put the pieces on the board and „play chess“. None of the children knew the rules of chess, but they played extensively and completely age-appropriate „as if“.
Arne watched the children’s game persistently and quietly, as the kindergarten teacher told later.
After some time, the father began to wonder because Arne was unfriendly to him and also stopped coming with the chess set to ask him to play. He asked his son why.
Arne finally replied that he couldn’t play chess at all and he could not be convinced otherwise. It turned out that Arne was angry with his father because he believed that his father had „taught him baby chess“.
The mother eventually found out that her son had tried to understand the rules by which the children played in kindergarten, which of course he could not succeed in doing because the children played completely without rules. The parents found out that Arne now believed that he was too stupid or still too small to understand the „correct“ rules of the big ones.
The assumption is that the three-year-old boy could not imagine that the six-year-old children, whom he experienced as much bigger, much older, more independent and experienced in many things, could not do something that he himself had mastered and that came easily to him.
Because of his wrong conclusion, he produced negative feelings: disappointment and perhaps also shame that he could not yet play chess and that he was small and stupid; anger at his father because he had supposedly deceived him; aversion to playing chess.
In this situation, Arne urgently needed an explanatory pattern for his experience in kindergarten that represented reality better than his own attempt and that supported his self-concept (and his motivation to play chess).
Is it permissible to tell a young child that he or she is gifted?
But is it allowed? Can you tell a child that he or she is more advanced or smarter than the other children? Kindergarten teachers as well as parents report inhibitions about doing so. Two fears prevent them from telling the child the truth in such a situation:
- firstly, the worry that the child might become arrogant and overbearing;
- secondly, the worry that the child might talk about it unabashedly with other children or adults and thus make himself (and his parents) unpopular.
I consider the first concern to be just as unfounded as the possible concern that a child might become arrogant just because he or she runs faster, swims earlier, paints more beautifully or sings better.
Mähler and Hofmann (2002) have a similar view: „Whether your child is three or ten years old, if you convey to him that being gifted is no reason for arrogance, your child will adopt this attitude.“ 〈translated by H.V.〉 (p. 45) See: Bibliography.
The second concern is more serious. In many counselling sessions, parents reported to me that the behaviour of neighbours and acquaintances (for example, other kindergarten parents) changed noticeably after their child’s giftedness or even just the suspected giftedness became known.
These behavioural changes were mostly perceived as negative. All the behaviours that are shown to people in outsider positions were reported: sceptical queries; strangely motivated approaches (Annika and Carina could become friends and play together more often – at school age: do homework together); expressions of envy or subliminal envy; fear of contact up to the complete breaking off of contact and the prohibition to play with the gifted child.
Parents who openly discuss the giftedness of their own children with acquaintances and in public still find themselves in an outsider’s position in Germany. Not all parents want to put themselves and their children through that. Therefore, the kindergarten teacher must take this concern seriously, make sure of the parents‘ attitude and deal with the term giftedness in a correspondingly tactful way.
That such tactful handling is not a matter of course is shown by the example of a primary school headmistress who, after a trusting admission interview with parents of a gifted child, informed the press the next day, without consulting the parents, that she now had a gifted child at her school and brought the reporter together with the gifted child. This is certainly a very blatant case, but it should give pause for thought.
So if restraint is appropriate on the part of the kindergarten teacher and gifted children and their parents must not be forcibly „outed“ – how can we then succeed in giving the child the necessary explanatory patterns for being different?
Schlichte-Hiersemenzel (2001a) writes in this regard: „Affectionate, simple naming of abilities and behaviours in which their unusual giftedness is expressed can have an immediate relieving effect on the gifted children and adolescents.“ (p.41) 〈translated by H.V.〉 See: Bibliography.
Much is art
When I reached this point in my time as a kindergarten teacher dealing with gifted education, I introduced the term „art“ in the kindergarten group. From then on, I used the term „art“ to describe all the special abilities of the children in the group. The term was quickly adopted by the children. For example, one child showed special bow-tying skills, another was particularly good at table-wiping, ball-catching or comforting. Still others discovered a special water-carrying art (when many, many watering cans full of water were needed for playing in the summer).
It seemed quite natural to the children – which it is – that there was also arithmetic art, writing art, reading art, puzzle art or thinking art. These cognitive abilities were also appreciated as naturally as all the others.
By introducing a catchy, child-friendly term to name special abilities, the children were also able to talk about them among themselves. The kindergarten teacher is a role model for the use of the term:
It is important that the kindergarten teacher recognises and names the special abilities (arts) of all children, which a kindergarten teacher who knows her children well will succeed in doing.
(One IHVO Course participant put this pedagogical suggestion like this:
Professors, Step Forward!)
Skills that have just been demonstrated and achievements that have recently been accomplished can be concretely and situationally titled as „art“ (or with similar terms that kindergarten teachers invent for it).
Sometimes the children also came up with ideas that needed to be discussed: Is it art if a child is particularly good at annoying others? Since this activity clearly violated our kindergarten rules, it was not difficult to come to the conclusion that this is not art, „but crap“ (original sound of a gifted child). The term „crap“ was also appreciated as a good idea; „crap“ was adopted by the children into the basic vocabulary of the group, as a generic term for destructive skills and actions.
Here, the kindergarten teacher herself has to show her colours and take her educational mandate seriously: She must be able to represent in the microcosm of the kindergarten group that some ideas are better than others, that much is „art“, but some is also „crap“.
High expectations of one’s own abilities
Albert Einstein had a peculiarity in his early childhood years:
„He first forms complete sentences in his mind, then rehearses them in a restrained voice, moving his lips as he does so, and only when everything fits together well does he speak them out loud in his child’s voice. His strange behaviour accompanies him into the first years of school.“
(Source: Jürgen Neffe, Einstein. A Biography, p. 27, translated for this article by Hanna Vock)
In the literature, „perfectionism“ is often cited as a problematic characteristic of gifted children. This refers to the fact that the child is often or usually not satisfied with the results of his or her play or work and agonises over the fact that he or she cannot do better. Educators and psychologists try to take away „the pressure they put on themselves“. They try to free them from perfectionism.
Statements by kindergarten teachers in IHVO training events:
– „I wish he would still overcome his perfectionism so that he can then cope better at school.“
– „She often gets in her own way with her perfectionism.“
It is mainly negative things that are perceived:
– the fear part (my performance is not good enough / I am not good enough);
– the performance hindrance part (the child needs too much time and is blocked by dissatisfaction);
Can we also see the observed perfectionism of gifted children positively as a fundamentally higher demand on the desired result? I would hereby also like to plead for deleting the word „perfectionism“ from the pedagogical vocabulary and replacing it with „high demand on one’s own performance“.
First of all, it should be checked whether the demand is really absurdly high and whether one can help the child to become more realistic and thus be more satisfied with his or her results.
or whether it is possible to give them help, guidance and support so that they can achieve their goals.
Here is an example from my own kindergarten practice, which I have already reported in the handbook article: Playfellows and Friends of Gifted Children.
I include it here again and look at it from a different angle.
Marja was 5 years old when she changed to our kindergarten. Again one of those children who just couldn’t quite relate to peers in age. When other children invited her to play with them she often declined. She was quiet, regularly retreated to an observer’s position and rarely joined on-going playing activities. Yet, Marja had great verbal skills, she was able to express herself eloquently and loved elaborate stories. I was looking for an explanation why she was not interested in joint playing activities. Kasper (punch)* and Crocodile came to help me:
Our Kindergarten had finally bought a new set of Kasper hand puppets after a long while without any puppet theatre. I played a little play with Kasper and Crocodile where the two were at first just having a peaceful chat, but then got into an argument. Eventually Crocodile tried to bite Kasper. Kasper would not take that, he chased Crocodile away. The greater part of our group was watching.
Then it was the children’s turn to play the puppets. One child would play Kasper and another played Crocodile. Then the puppets were passed on to the next two children. Marja stood quietly beside me, observed the scene, but made no effort to take her turn.
The stories the children played were mostly non-verbal, there were no arguments, but there were always splendid fist fights, lots of yelling, screaming and plenty of drama for sure: Kasper calls Crocodile – Crocodile shows up and bites Kasper – Kasper gives the Crocodile a beating – Crocodile runs away – laughter – applause – end of story.
An adaption of the subject matter that was perfectly adequate for the age group and subsequently allowed us to work on it, elaborating and refining the narrative. Children and adults were showing great enthusiasm and joy.
Except for Marja. She answered my question whether she wanted to take her turn with a determined “no”. A few minutes later I double-checked and then she whispered: “Yes, but I want to play with you.”
So …, another child that opted to “cling to a kindergarten teacher” instead of interacting with other children. What was her reason?
The reason became clear when I was playing with her. It turned out she had not only memorised my rather complicated story and wanted to replay it, but she even augmented it with an idea of her own. When the crocodile (I) began snapping at Kasper she dodged and shouted: “If you bite me today, I’ll have a muzzle for you tomorrow and you’ll never get to take it off again, just so you know!” The story then spontaneously took a conciliatory turn, in the course of which Marja was improvising quite smartly.
*(Kasper is the main character in a miniature universe of archetypical characters known to all German children – the “Kasperletheater”. The set of characters most commonly includes the policeman, the crocodile, the crook, the devil, the prince & princess, the magician, and a finite but varying number of others. The stories are usually performed as hand puppet theatre plays before live audience and usually have an educational, thought-provoking twist. It is customary for the children in the audience to get involved in the performances: they warn Kasper of looming dangers or they are being addressed directly by Kasper himself when he asks them to help him make a decision.)
Marja had high expectations with regard to the result of an activity. She wanted to play “a real story” and she analysed the situation with great accuracy. She observed the goings-on and drew the conclusion that it would hardly be possible to realise her idea of a real story with the children present in the room.
That was how her sad and frustrated expression and her whispered wish to play with the adult came about – and she whispered it because, from her experience at another kindergarten, she knew that she was separating herself from the group by asking for special treatment like that.
Marja’s initial refusal to play along was therefore not an expression of underdeveloped social behaviour, as one might have thought at first, but an expression of her advanced mental development.
Marja was able to experience a (strengthening) success and looked very satisfied.
Also in painting and drawing I could often experience that gifted children were dissatisfied with their result, even if the colleague said: „Oh, that’s a nice picture!“ The child’s own standard was different, for example, the object drawn should be clearly recognisable. With a girl who had this requirement, I organised a drawing course with little effort, virtually on the side, similar to the one Silvia Hempler describes:
Drawing Course with Linda.
See also the article: Drawing Exercises at 4.
This way helps the child to clarify its high inner standards, to maintain them in principle and to fulfil them better, i.e. to learn rapidly and with good support.
We also learn from mistakes, but above all from successes
Man learns from his mistakes. So they say. A scientist at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, contradicts this view. Following a study, Earl Miller claims: „Our brain learns from successes – and learns efficiently and quickly.“ (Translated by Vock.)
Author Anne Gielas reports and further quotes from the research report in the journal „Psychologie heute“ (translated by Vock):
„With his research, the neuropsychologist investigates how the feedback from our environment influences learning. Miller has succeeded for the first time in reproducing this learning process on the basis of the reaction of individual brain cells. For this purpose, the scientist and his colleagues investigated the neuronal processes in monkeys in brain-physiological studies. The animals were shown two pictures at the same time, whereby they were asked to look to the left for certain motifs and to the right for others. Their reactions were followed by feedback from the researchers, who praised them for the correct reactions and drew their attention to errors. …
„If they (the monkeys) followed the task correctly and reaped positive feedback, their neurons subsequently showed improved performance,“ Miller explains.
After incorrect responses, however, the team of scientists found little or no difference in performance. Miller concludes that success and positive feedback are crucial for learning. But why do we learn more from pleasing feedback than from criticism? „The brain probably tends to process positive feedback more because it generally provides more information,“ is Miller’s assumption.
According to: Earl Miller et al: Learning substrates in the primate prefrontal cortex and striatum: Sustained activity related to successful actions. Neuron, 63, 2/2009, 244-253
Quoted from: Psychologie heute, August 2010, p. 15.
Observations from my time as a kindergarten teacher
Annie, just three years old, is trying to build a wall out of rectangular wooden blocks. At first she does not place the blocks accurately on top of each other, the wall becomes more and more crooked and finally topples over.
Learning effect: It didn’t work, no idea why. No sense of achievement.
She repeats the experiment, but uses three comparatively small blocks as a base and stacks larger ones on top. Another child interferes: „You have to use big bricks at the bottom. Annie stops short, but continues building until the wall collapses again very quickly.
Learning effect: Depending:
– Annie already related failures primarily to herself (it’s me). Her reaction: I can’t do it. Consequence: I won’t do it. Not a learning effect, but the confirmation of a negative attribution.
In order to prevent this self-assessment (which is disastrous for further learning) from becoming entrenched, Annie needed two things:
Firstly, she needed targeted guidance in the kindergarten to achieve as many successes as possible, which she was also made aware of through explicit confirmation.
And secondly, a meeting with the parents that made the situation transparent for them and showed them ways to give their daughter a lot of confidence and, if necessary, to give her practical support in achieving her goals – not by doing something for her, but by giving her good advice.
Katja, who was the same age, was in a very similar situation. However, she already had a more stable self-esteem than Annie; for example, Katja was aware that she had already achieved many things that at first did not want to go.
Apparently she now thought: It doesn’t work that way.
This conclusion does not scratch her self-esteem at all. Therefore, there is a much greater chance that she will not give up so quickly. She will probably want to find out how it could be done. She does not experience the momentary non-success as failure, but rather as an interesting challenge.
This attitude means that Katja is not only open to further trying, but also to good advice and further learning.
In the third attempt, Annie heeds the other child’s advice, but still places the bricks on top of each other just as imprecisely. The wall falls, again no sense of achievement.
Learning effect: It didn’t work again. I’m doing something wrong (because others can do it too)! What do I have to do differently? If the child has a good relationship of trust with the kindergarten teacher or older children, she can ask for help and will probably be told that she has to place the building blocks very precisely on top of each other.
Now she tries to align the bricks more carefully on a proper basis.
And lo and behold, it works! Annie emerges strengthened from her attempts.
However, it would have ended negatively for her if neither the other child nor the kindergarten teacher had observed Annie and helped her. Here the kindergarten teacher can reinforce: „You can ask me for advice or help if something doesn’t work out again.“
Self-concept and self-esteem
are made up of many experiences of success / failure
and how they are processed – and this begins very early in kindergarten for gifted children.
Date of publication in German: December 2021
Copyright © Hanna Vock see Imprint.