by Hanna Vock


When gifted children first enter kindergarten their thinking already differs from that of peers in age: They try to grasp a given situation as a whole, they observe carefully what is going on around them, what the kindergarten teachers and other children do, and they are able to draw far reaching conclusions from what they see. Some three-year-olds already have an elaborate self-concept; this is to say they reflect themselves, their behaviour and that of others, compare and evaluate it. They try to manage complex situations and to act appropriately – their experience of life still is, needless to say, rather limited. Consequently they are more self-conscious when confronted with a new situation.

Such an enormously important and utterly new situation is kindergarten at first. Most gifted children will quickly pick up what’s “cool” and what, on the contrary, is likely to be greeted with little acclaim among the children and the teachers.


… in a nutshell …

Not all gifted children are proud of their unusual abilities and handle them with confidence. Some, primarily girls, control their actions and utterances, they try to go unnoticed.

They are irritated, because they notice the other children are different, so many begin to hide great parts of their abilities and interests very early on. This makes it difficult for the kindergarten teacher to recognize giftedness.

Examples of behaviour patterns that might lead to problems with their peers (and for that matter with their kindergarten teachers as well) could be:

  • showing lots of knowledge or demanding lots of information,
  • persistent enquiring
  • starting long and profound conversations,
  • using complex syntax, extended vocabulary and speaking in higher registers
  • always searching for „difficult“ games and stories,
  • wanting to resolve conflicts verbally by using arguments,
  • showing interest in „grown-up issues“ and in the grown-ups’ conversations,
  • express interest in reading, writing or arithmetic.

Even at a kindergarten which is very open to the idea of pre-school giftedness a 5 years old girl said: “I knew numbers were infinite. I dreamt it.” Her kindergarten teacher made a note: “She has repeatedly been saying this lately when she was aware of something ahead of everybody else. I assume she does so to conceal that she might know more than the other children.”

(Manuela Bongen, Kürten.)

Some gifted children choose to hide their true interests and abilities rather than get in trouble. Their behaviour in kindergarten differs greatly from that at home, so that in the end the kindergarten teacher can hardly believe all the things the parents say the child does and manages at home.

It is quite common that gifted girls conform to a degree where their abilities and interests remain unnoticed.

One IHVO-Graduate wrote:

“I am convinced that I take all children seriously with regard to their wishes and ideas, that I support them, boys and girls equally. Still I must ask myself: If a child, especially a girl, doesn’t show clear signs and signals, if it intentionally conforms entirely – will I know its true emotional state, its possibly existing abilities?”

(Marietta Schulte, Ense/Westfalen)

See also:  Girls Having Their Way

Detecting giftedness can be hindered when a child has learned early on to hide its extraordinary abilities and interests in public or even before anybody. “Before anybody” then also includes the child’s own parents and pedagogues, even those who are experienced with gifted children. In my sixth year at kindergarten I personally failed to recognize that one of my children was able to read fluently:

Lisa was 6;0 and had been in my group for two years at the time. One day she was talking about something she could not have known unless she had just read it. When I cautiously addressed the issue when nobody else was around, she flushed and started stuttering (which she normally doesn’t do), saying: “No, I can’t read. I just saw it.” I asked her whether she wanted nobody to know that she recognized what the writing means. She said, yes, didn’t explain any further and was still visibly confused. I promised I wouldn’t tell anybody and asked her if she would show me how that “seeing” worked.

She then effortlessly read out an entire picture book to me – one she hadn’t seen before. Among the group, however, she didn’t want anybody to know about it before her transfer to elementary school.

To this day I don’t know why Lisa was so anxious about anybody knowing she could read, be it her parents or the other children. The only sense I can make of it is that she didn’t want to distinguish herself in front of her twin sister to whom she felt very close and who hardly showed any interest in reading.

One possible explanation for concealing abilities is offered by Hirsemenzel (2001a), (see Recommended Reading ) who writes: “Whenever the potentials of a child and its urge to grow diverge too far from the potentials of the people around, if they don’t match, two vital human needs can become conflicting needs inside the child and disturb its development severely: the need to grow and the need to be part of the group. […] The child tries to integrate the two needs so that they may both be catered to as best as possible. […] There is a strong interdependence with the environment and from an early age on there is a “need for sharing emotional and cognitive states with regard to the world” (Dornes, Die frühe Kindheit [Early Childhood], 1997). “ ‘Sharing’ in this context means ‘co-witnessing / co-experiencing’.”

Hirsemenzel elaborates: „For gifted children this means, they try to hide their apparently unwelcome talents, to cut them down or even become oblivious to them.” (ibidem, p. 12)

An example from my parent consultations demonstrates how quickly a child will switch to concealment if it feels misunderstood or not taken seriously. The mother related the following:

Lars was 5, went to kindergarten and wouldn’t be going to school before the summer after the next. He was at that time already solving arithmetic problems of the kind 160 : 8, and did so eagerly and successfully. His mother was worried and consulted a psychologist. Lars had overheard the preceding telephone conversation between his mother and the psychologist in which the mother spoke in detail about his ability to do arithmetic.

When the day came he greeted the psychologist well mannered as he was and talked to her. She then said: “Since you’re so good at arithmetic, tell me, what does this come to.” And she pointed to a problem that was written on a blackboard with chalk: “2 + 2 =”.

Lars momentarily fell silent and couldn’t be motivated to say one more thing. When his mother as well as the psychologist repeatedly urged him to answer he stepped up to the blackboard, licked his finger and scrupulously erased the problem, not a word spoken. All beseeching and persuading was in vain and finally the psychologist got carried away saying: “What’s this boy doing here? He can’t do any arithmetic, he doesn’t even understand the setting of a task.”

The mother, too, was indignant at her son´s ??? conduct and hardly out the door asked him why he hadn’t answered. Lars replied with a sad look and voice: “Oh, mum, she wasn’t taking us seriously a bit!”

(The poor achievement of a number of gifted children in a recently conducted study on language proficiency in NRW [North Rhine-Westphalia/one of sixteen federal states in Germany] may be analogous here. Many children fell silent when realizing how low the standard of the tests was. They were probably preoccupied, puzzled by the odd situation they found themselves in, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.)

I wrote a fairy tale based on this episode from long ago. (“The Tale of The Princess Whom Everybody Considered Too Smart”, Click here to read in full length.)

In this tale the princess can do arithmetic well, long before she receives formal instruction. She helps the farm hand figure out how many sacks of oat he must buy. When finally a renowned tutor is employed to teach her, he sets the following task: “Princess, if I were to put a chair right here and another one next to it – how many chairs will that be? Think about it carefully and tell me your answer tomorrow.”

No further than this did the ten gifted children in my theatre group know the plot when we were rehearsing one day in 2001. Six of the children were 5, one was 4, two were 6 and another two ??? were 8 years old.

I was in the mood for a little experiment and asked the children: “What do you think will she tell the tutor the next day?”

Eight children, one by one, said she wouldn’t say anything at all. When I dug deeper, asking why, they said:

“She isn’t saying anything. Nothing at all.“ And „It’s just like that, she isn’t saying a word.” and “No, not one word.”

One 5-year-old, who up to that point hadn’t said anything yet, grinned: “She could still say three .” The 8-year-old, whom I had asked to speak last, added dryly:

“Why not three thousand four hundred and twenty seven.”

All children had an immediate and tacit understanding of the absurd in the princess’ situation.

Yet, isn’t it remarkable that out of ten gifted children not one even conceived of the possibility that the princess might simply go and say the right answer. To me this seems to imply that these children have a far reaching insight into the different levels of mental activity and how great an emotional blockade they themselves build up against adults who address them on an inappropriately low level.

This lies at the heart of the problem of giftedness being so rarely noticed in kindergarten. The child finds itself in an environment where both the kindergarten teachers and the other children try to animate the child to participate in activities or tasks that are far below its current state of development. Oftentimes gifted children react by withdrawal from activities in the group, falling silent, avoidance and concealment.

Kindergarten teachers in our courses keep expressing their surprise, often even disbelief, when hearing what the parents tell them the child is doing at home. They just can’t reconcile these reports with their observations in kindergarten.

In order to recognize giftedness reliably it takes more than precise observation.

First and foremost is enabling the child to trust that it is being fully accepted and appreciated in its being different, and that its abilities and interests are recognized as positive. This generally true and valid pedagogic principle continues to be violated with regard to gifted children.

Yet, only a fundamental sense of trust (“Here I will be understood and accepted in spite of my interests which are really different sometimes.”) will allow gifted children to show ‘gifted behaviour’ in kindergarten.

The concealment of giftedness is largely a problem for girls, who – statistically speaking – conform more frequently than boys. Gifted boys will (statistically) more often resort to aggression: They are annoying and clown about. This is why they are more likely to be noticed and tested, and their parents are more likely to seek professional advice.

All measures of advancement of giftedness must aim at detecting tendencies to conceal and withdraw, and must help these children develop a stronger sense of acceptance of their own potentials and to express them freely. This is rooted in a trusting relationship with the gifted child and encompasses the work with the group as a whole.

See also:


Date of publication in German: October 13 th, 2009
Translated by Arno Zucknick
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see Imprint.

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