by Hanna Vock


It is not a rare case, that gifted children are perceived as anxious by their kindergarten teachers. Upon a closer look these children tend to show two types of anxiousness. Firstly the fear of entering into new situations (we will refer to this as ‘timidity’) and secondly the fear of tackling new tasks and challenges (we will refer to this as ‘apprehension’).

Of course not all gifted children appear to be anxious; some are rather courageous.

A kindergarten teacher from one of our courses related this story about an excursion that ended in a total fiasco:

She was going to take the children up on the town hall tower so that they could take a look at the town from above. On the day before the trip she told the children how the tower was really high and that therefore there were always strong winds up there and that they would be taking a super fast elevator to get all the way up there. Thereupon a 3-year-old, assumed gifted, declared he would not go. The kindergarten teacher responded by saying that this trip would be a great experience and that he could take his time to think about it.

…in other words…

By means of two examples it shall be illustrated how an assumed weakness (timidity) can be seen as a strength. The key to this is an understanding of children’s sometimes unusual and uncommonly early thinking processes. Because of these uncommonly early thinking processes children sometimes need more and thorough information prior to challenging situations.

The next morning that kindergarten teacher‘s colleague called in sick and a mother offered to fill in and accompany the group. Having arrived at the tower and about to enter the elevator Jonas steadfastly refused to get in. The kindergarten teacher was facing a dilemma: Jonas was neither going to go up the tower nor stay downstairs with a woman he hardly knew. At the same time she couldn’t let the rest of the group go up the tower accompanied only by that mother, who was completely inexperienced with the dynamics of groups and not formally trained. She therefore aborted the excursion which was, of course, a great frustration for everybody. The group was mad at Jonas as he was being perceived as the one who spoiled the trip. Jonas felt perceivably awkward in this situation and the mother voiced her anger: “I could have taken my good old time doing the grocery shopping instead!”

What could have been done to make it work? In class we analyzed the situation. The key to the solution was in the fact that gifted children are much earlier than usual able to conceive of ‘future’.

See: Thinking Capability .

The thinking of 3-year-olds who are not gifted is still confined to the present; they will think about past experiences a little, yet, the future is rather airy for them, they cannot quite conceive of – let alone in any detail – what might happen in the future.

Gifted 3-year-olds, however, contemplate the past intensely and are mentally quite able to ponder something that lies ahead in time. We may therefore assume that Jonas had been thinking about the upcoming trip.

With the ability to think the future comes the ability to assess possible future dangers. Small children rely largely on adults for their safety. Only as they learn to think the future their minds develop a subroutine which I would like to refer to as ‘risk assessment’. From that point on this subroutine will always be running in the background. We adults are rarely aware of it – but we are constantly (mostly as a subroutine, too) assessing risks, we might be running, if we entered a new situation or accepted a new assignment.

This subroutine influences all our decisions. But certainly, it is an acquired skill. And Jonas was just at that point, where he was developing this kind of awareness. With the help of this newly implemented and self-refining subroutine he was beginning to assume more and more responsibility for himself.

Is there any chance at all for me to do this right? Could I be making a fool of myself? Could this be dangerous for me? Might I feel awkward in this situation?

The problem with gifted children seems to be that this subroutine often kicks in at a point in their lives when their experience of life and their knowledge of the world are still quite rudimentary. And what’s more, at a point in time when adults do not expect this of them and they have therefore not yet come up with ideas to give them purposeful support in such matters.

Just the more confusing it must have been for Jonas that everybody else, even the older children, were not worried like he was.

After the event it emerged that Jonas had – as far as he knew – never been inside an elevator let alone having been on a high tower. Both ideas were intimidating for him and the dramatic description of the scenario by the kindergarten teacher had not been very helpful either.

When as a result of these considerations the class was able to sympathize better with Jonas, possible solutions were contemplated.

Soon it became clear that Jonas would have needed further information to put his worries at rest, for example all safety relevant information which the kindergarten teacher could have passed him before she decided in favour of this particular excursion:

  • The observation deck is secured by a high fence – and it has not been heard of, that anyone had ever fallen off the platform, even though the tower had been open to the public for many many years.
  • The same goes for the elevator. (By the way, elevators are the safest means of transportation there is.)
  • The winds are not that strong after all, they could never push anybody off the tower.

Had Jonas had these important pieces of information ahead of time, he could have based his decision about participating or declining on a wider range of data.

There is no telling whether he wouldn’t still have decided against the excursion, but the situation would have been much more propitious, since there would have been time for discussion and preparation.

The problem was at its heart not an emotional one (fear) but a cognitive one (lack of information).

Conclusion: Gifted children who appear timid need sufficient information to come to a risk assessment of their own with regard to a situation which they are to enter.

If the boy, though having been sufficiently informed about the planned excursion beforehand, had decided not to participate, this would still have been a success: By the group he could have been regarded (with the support of the kindergarten teacher) as one, who has the guts to say ‘no’ while everybody else is saying ‘yes’.

As for the second type of anxiousness – apprehension…

Sometimes we adults think a child should be able to perform a particular task and we then find it hard to understand why the child should be so resistant against that task.

In a parent counseling session a father told me he got really angry when his five years old daughter “acted as if she was stupid”. For quite a while his daughter had been helping with little chores (clearing away dishes from the kitchen table, wiping the table and the windowsill in her room, disposing her laundry in the laundry basket) and he thought it absolutely stubborn that she refused to go and get the breakfast rolls from the nearby bakery.

For him it seemed a perfectly suitable task for his daughter as she had a good command of the language and she was not shy either, she was well able to cross the street safely at the traffic lights, she was able to count the money and to memorize the three kinds of rolls to be bought. She had also been to that bakery many times and people there knew her.

So why was she not willing to go ahead and buy those rolls? She wouldn’t answer that question.

After the counseling session the father had another chat with his little girl about that issue. He now did not expostulate with her and he was not angry. He offered instead to consider together with her what might go wrong when shopping at the bakery. The daughter showed interest in that question and out came a number of problems the little girl had stumbled upon:

1. The salespersons at the bakery might not notice her in the midst of Saturday morning’s push and shove at the bakery, and they might think she was only accompanying an adult.

2. Somebody else might jump the queue.

3. One sort of rolls might have been sold out and then she might not be able to decide on another quickly enough.

4. She might be nervous and not notice if she got back too little or too much change. She would be embarrassed to be taking too much back.

5. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to stuff the big paper bag of rolls into her shopping bag and maybe she would drop the rolls in the attempt.

Five possible events for which the gifted child had no strategies ready yet. The parents took the time to sit down with their daughter and together they ran these situations by themselves and explored possible solutions.

About 1. and 2.:

She practised shouting “I want to buy rolls, too. When will it be my turn?”

About 3.:

In this case she should just do without the missing kind and say “That will be all then”.

About 4.:

She should trust that the salesperson will make no mistake. In case the parents should notice that the change didn’t add up, they would take care of that themselves.

About 5.:

She could use a basket which it would be easy to put the paper bag of rolls into. They could practise this the next time they were at the bakery.

This child, too, had long adopted the habit of thoroughly thinking about the future and ambitiously accepted a great deal of responsibility (for example accountability for the right amount of change money). It was surely aware that it would be nervous and that it might therefore not be able to handle certain situations.

The parents took weight off its shoulders, offered strategies and opportunities for practice. Now the girl did try, and after the first time, which was, of course, a full success, she was happy and proud and has ever since been going out on Saturday mornings to buy the rolls.

See also Examples of Anxiousness


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