by Hanna Vock


1. Giftedness Is a Problem for the Unfortunate, Though

I was 9 years old, it was the time of year when the entrance examinations for the so called “higher” schools were up. One had to attend classes at the higher school for one week – that was during 4th form – and then the school would decide on acceptance or rejection of the respective student. That is how it was back in 1959 in Lower Saxony.


… in a nutshell …

Giftedness occurs across all social classes. Children from poor families and children who have problems with the German language are much less likely to be detected and advanced in their giftedness. Kindergarten can help them satisfy their craving for knowledge. It can support the parents in recognising their children’s giftedness and in advancing it.


There were 32 of us children in the class, our elementary school was situated in a working class neighbourhood of a small industrial town.

My father was a carpenter. In his youth it had been his dream to become a teacher or a journalist. But the circumstances did not allow that. At the beginning of the 20th century his parents had immigrated from Bohemia to escape the widespread poverty there. They were going to work in a newly built spinning mill in the foreign country. They had three children with them, three more were to be born in the following years. The mother spoke a heavy dialect which many natives did not understand and she was illiterate. For herself as for her four daughters, unqualified work was the only work they could get at the factory. The two sons at least were able to get a formal job training.

That was painful to see for the old man, the immigrant, as he thought a lot of good education, he was a member of one of the first labour unions and sent his six children to a newly founded “Secular School”, which aimed to provide the children with a solid, modern, scientifically based understanding of the world within 8 school years. Also, the old man was fond of the idea of equal rights for women; he scrimped and saved up for the membership fees for the workers’ sports union for all his children, including his daughters. For girls to be active in sports, to even be allowed to do sports, was quite unusual in those days.
They were immigrants, and they were poor. This narrowed their educational perspective. None of the children was able to develop its talents to full potential.

As a child I had a notion that I could feel and see how talented my then old relatives were and how they had not been enabled to develop these talents during childhood and youth, who had not been able to prosper during the Nazi dictatorship, when it was all about pure survival, and who even after the war could not thrive for want of means – never due to lack of talent.

It was not any better for my mother, who was wide awake even at old age and whose sharp and critical mind had never been nourished. At retirement age her educational medium was television. Reading books – as had been pounded into her during school times – had always remained an idle waste of time for her. An attitude which unfortunately bled heavily into my own childhood. What weighed even heavier in her case was that she, as a girl, had attended a so called dwarf school [a tiny school], in which (according to her staggeringly detailed recollection) the curriculum consisted mainly in handicrafts and catechism. In addition, her father, a miner, had never had any educational ambition for himself nor for his children. The mother had no say on such issues – and her only smart child received no support from her mother for her inappropriate ambitions and critical thinking.
Even as a child all this made me angry and sad at the same time – and I considered it a grand flaw of the school system.

For my father it was clear that I would be attending a higher school. My straight A average reaffirmed him in his plans. Still my childhood was characterised by boredom and monotony. The quota of working-class children at higher schools was 3 per cent back then; working-class daughters held a share of only 0,5 per cent among students.

At that time I was not aware of these figures; I thought, in these modern times all smart children would get to attend the higher schools.

Just the greater was my astonishment when in the 4th form the teacher declared that I would be missing the following week, because I was going to take the examinations at the Gymnasium [top level in the German school system], and that one boy was also going to be missing, because he was taking the examinations at the Realschule [intermediate level in the German school system].

I recall, as if it had been yesterday, my immediate question: “An what about Ingrid?”. In my eyes Ingrid was the smartest child in our class, she was quiet and shy, yet she always knew the answer to everything when asked – and she had a straight A average, too.

Asking my parents about it, I found they had no take on it, but it kept preoccupying me. So, after a while I had a heart – I was quite shy myself – to make an appointment with Ingrid. Even though I was nine years old, I had never left our street on my own, except, of course, for my way to school. I asked my way through to her house, walked quite a distance and finally found myself in front of a Nissen hut (a tunnel-shaped hut made of corrugated iron with a cement floor).

Inside I saw a skinny man, who looked ill and was coughing all the time, along with the mother who was raw-boned, too, holding a baby in her arms.

Nowadays the poor tend to be overweight, not so back then.

I, myself living in a 38 square meters mansard together with my parents, was struck by that family’s sad poverty, and it was futile to ask why Ingrid would not be able to attend the higher school. I would have found that question terribly embarrassing.
That has been a long time ago, it was the year 1959.

But poverty, having seemed to have disappeared from Germany for a while, is back again. And there is the shameful result of all recent PISA studies [Programme for International Student Assessment], stating that in Germany the most strongly determining factor for the educational forthcoming of children is their parents’ social status.

In the year 2002 I was invited by the AWO (Arbeiter Wohlfahrt – Labour Welfare) to give a workshop for kindergarten managers on “Gifted Children at Kindergarten”.

At the onset I was faced with an unusual lack of interest in the topic, and when I was finally tired of struggling against this indifference, I asked my audience whether there was any interest in the topic at all, and the unanimous answer was “no”. Their institutions had made them attend my presentation.
That aroused my curiosity: “Which topic are you presently interested in? What do you presently have to deal with primarily?”

I learned that these kindergarten managers were preoccupied with the topic of childhood poverty. The AWO had picked up on the issue early on and was working on it in kindergartens. There had been an increasing number of cases where children had come to kindergarten hungry, that these children had been told at home to get their fill at kindergarten so that they would not need to eat anything else at home. Children had been noticed coming to kindergarten in the same old rubber boots, summer and winter, even after they had grown out of them. Admonishments and appeals to the parents had shown no effect. It turned out that it was not always due to the parents’ lack of responsibility or competence, but that it was simply poverty that was behind it all. This was no complete news to me, but it helped to establish a common ground with my audience for the remaining part of the workshop.

I asked my audience to consider how a child might be feeling when not only having to suffer physical but even intellectual starvation – and nobody notices or helps. It then became quite a lively discourse.

Intellectual starvation occurs especially in milieus where there are no books, no interesting trips, no assets for participation in courses or excursions or in any otherwise cultural activities.

What is even worse than the omnipresent and depressing lack of money in poor families, is the circumstance, that oftentimes there is nobody around, who himself could pass on education directly (because they themselves have not received it).

If, on the contrary, there is somebody who cares about the continuous accumulation of knowledge and the thorough reflection of all kinds of questions, and who disposes of the energy to turn to the child in its intellectual endeavours, that person will be a blessing in disguise for the talented child. Yet, as it is with ongoing poverty, it wears people out, so not many children get to be so lucky.

An additional obstacle for children suffering from intellectual starvation is the fact that many parents, through series of set-backs and humiliations, have lost, or never found, faith in education as a means of enriching all aspects of life. This resignation is frequently passed on to the children.

Yet, they do exist, the talented and even gifted children with “poor backgrounds”.

The disposition for giftedness is hereditary. But it does not automatically lead to educational and professional success; scores of gifted people do not climb the social ladder, but they do pass their giftedness on to their children genetically.
But in order to develop, giftedness does need favourable conditions.

Possible family constellations:

    • The child is the only gifted person around. There might have been cases of “it” [giftedness] in the family and among the relatives, but actually it is something quite foreign, something that is not being recognised nor understood. The atmosphere in the family is governed by ignorance and repudiation of the Special Playing and Learning Needs of the child, its craving for knowledge and the many thoughts and questions.
      Consequence: The child urgently needs kindergarten teachers who recognise it in its giftedness, who communicate with the child in the appropriate way and provide adequate developmental impulses. The parents urgently need somebody who helps them understand their child und accept and support it in its being different.
    • Although the child is the only gifted person around, the parents are happy about their bright child. They have a hunch that their child is not being challenged enough intellectually at kindergarten, at school and possibly not at home either. They want to stand by their child, yet, are insecure and may also dispose of only limited financial and logistic means.
      Consequence: Child and parents need counselling and direct support from a kindergarten or school with experience with giftedness providing adequate educational activities.
    • The child has a mother or father who is gifted her-/himself but belongs to the large number of undetected cases of giftedness, who have received no advancement themselves.
      In my experience it is often the mother who is in closer contact with the child and “notices” something and, from her own experience, is able to empathise with the child. She senses the child’s needs without being able to either put them in words or support them, sometimes even being unable to accept them.
      The child senses the kindred spirit but does not receive any explanations nor any real support.
      Consequence: The child urgently needs kindergarten teachers to fill in for that.
      Mother and father need support in taking the child’s needs seriously and meeting them more adequately. They need encouragement and affirmation, then they will support and advance their child as much as they can with respect to the family’s overall situation and finances.
      This child, too, needs kindergarten as a learning workshop for the storming intellectual development its potential allows for.


2. Do Gifted Children Really Need This Storming Developmental Pace?

Really, why does a gifted child need to take on a storming pace of development, that is, develop intellectually earlier and more rapidly than other children?

The answer lies in the nature of giftedness. A constitutive part of giftedness is, as in accordance with our definition, a pronounced intrinsic motivation. (See: Giftedness – A Definition.) This means that the child does want to be thinking and learning all the time – and since this is a basic need, it needs to be satisfied to ensure a healthy development.

If a very talented child – in accordance with this need – gets to assimilate and process a great amount of (developmentally adequate) information, then what you have is a storming development, as documented in numerous examples in this manual.

See for example: Indicators of Possible Intellectual Giftedness.

So all of this is not about high performance, but about satisfying needs. It is not primarily about society’s need for intelligent and talented elites, but first and above all about the welfare of the child.


3. Giftedness Can Also Be An Issue For Immigrants

How do we discover giftedness in children, who are not yet able to express themselves fluently in the German language – and who might at the same time belong to the less prosperous part of the population?

Having many questions and thoughts while being unable to express them in their daily surrounding, being unable to follow the conversations of the others, misunderstanding many things or being clueless altogether, all that is bad enough even for an adult. For a small child it is an impediment of its development and can be utterly disturbing.

What’s more: gifted children, without much command of the language spoken around them, suffer permanent intellectual hunger. And yet another disadvantage is that the other children, and the kindergarten teachers as well, consider the child much less intelligent than it really is. The greater the discrepancy between the actual cognitive developmental stage and the environment’s assessment of the child is, the greater is the emotional problem, the more will the child feel misunderstood and alienated.

Special attention is needed here. It is important to ask the parents how well the child speaks its native tongue and to direct the parents’ attention to this problem. Kindergarten, because of the language barrier, cannot provide as much education to this child as to the other children. The adults ought to try and supplement for this, or at least be aware of the problem.

Giftedness often shows most clearly through an exceptionally early and competent use of language. German children, too, even though natives speakers, do not necessarily have to be early competent speakers, and they can still have outstanding talents in other areas. If so, they have it just as hard to be recognised as gifted as do children of foreign descent. It is therefore just the more important for them and for children of a different native tongue, that kindergarten teachers are also aware of the other characteristics of high ability – and that they take them into account.
See also: Domains of Giftedness
See also: Indicators of Possible Intellectual Giftedness

See also: Jasmin, 3;4 Years

Characteristics to be highlighted once more at this point are:

    • a rapid recognition of patterns and rules (examples)
    • a great interest in systems and logical relations (examples)
    • an early interest in numbers and mathematics in general (examples)
    • an aversion and even unwillingness to perform routine and repetitive assignments (examples)
    • a great perseverance and resilience in endeavours which are of interest and which push towards the limits of the individual potential (examples)

These are the characteristics most likely to be observed independently of language development.


4. What can we do to prevent high ability from going under?

We can pay special attention to children from poor families.

– Do they show special abilities which surprise us?
– Do they comprehend quickly?
– Do they memorise new information well?
– Are they willing to participate in most activities?
– Do they show exceptional perseverance?
– Are they eager to learn?

We can look out for very alert and curious children who are hampered by a language barrier and cannot convey their differentiated and complex ideas to us.

– Do they show extraordinary non-verbal skills which surprise us?
– What are the questions and ideas they pronounce in their native tongue at home?

We can watch out for children who make rapid progress in learning the German language.

– Does the child expand its vocabulary at a tearing pace?
– Does it swiftly and comprehensively work out German grammar?
– Is this remarkable progress to be explained by the child strategically spending great effort in acquiring the language everybody else is speaking?
– Is this progress possibly due to an extraordinary talent for language?

We can team up with the parents.

In order to get important information on the child’s interests and abilities we are heavily dependent on the parents, especially so, if the respective child still has difficulty with the German language.
Devices that have proven to be quite helpful are the

Questionnaires for Parents, which are at your disposal here in our manual in chapter 5.2 in German, English, Polish, French, Turkish and Spanish.

The questionnaires help starting the conversation and can even be used as a guideline for the consultation. Parents who are of foreign background can use the versions in other languages to prepare the consultation at home.
In such a consultation a trustful relationship may be initiated, which can result in an enhanced cooperation and many good ideas for advancement.
It is a primary concern to satisfy the intellectual craving and promote and make visible the potential of a child – especially if it is not being fed with a silver spoon.


Published in German: May 11th, 2010
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see Imprint
Translated by Arno Zucknick

The translation of this article was made possible by
Barbara Teeke (Witten),
Claudia Flaig (Bonn),
Susanne Höfl (Cologne), Germany.


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