High-flyers also need flying lessons. The potential and problems of highly gifted children

By Birgit Wegerich-Bauer, August 2020

High-flyers, nerds, misfits ... the list of names which highly gifted children are called is a long one. In early childhood they can easily be identified as high-flyers. But often they are thwarted in their urge to try things out and think them through. Subsequently when they start school, full of anticipation, they are brought to a halt again because then these children are told: wait!

Foto: Digby / photocase.de

The problem of highly gifted children is that the other children still have to learn what they can already do. It is as if they are sitting on the runway permanently waiting to take off and finally many of them reach the point when they inwardly switch off. All that is left of their dream of “flying” is a big, unrecognised longing for the big wide world.

Earlier, further, faster, but also more abstract, complex and intense

Highly gifted children already stand out in early childhood through their greater wakefulness. They react faster and are more aware of their surroundings. As they grow older, their unlimited curiosity is evident. They learn to express themselves in complex relationships at an early stage. Mostly they have taught themselves to read and write before they start school. They have a wealth of knowledge early on and often ask open-ended questions. Some have a special area of interest – others an incredibly wide spectrum of interests. They are quick in their understanding and like to concern themselves with “big” all-encompassing questions of knowledge.

They possess a strong sense of justice and often stand up for the underdog. Some have a tendency to daydream, others love complicated brainteasers, and others again tend to generate ideas and link thoughts in a way which is unusual and not obvious for the outsider. They have complex ways of thinking and their thoughts appear to move in 3D format. They think and learn in a different way.

Then there is the additional factor that as a rule they have enhanced perception, are exceptionally sensitive and possess an extremely fine interpersonal sense. At the same time there is the risk from a very early age that they can clearly perceive the irritated reaction to their abilities in their social environment, mostly interpret this negatively and start to hide them. Questions are not asked, knowledge not shared – they withdraw, appear to be shy and uninvolved and as a result quickly disappear in the everyday life of kindergarten or school. Their survival strategy is: be silent instead of communicating.

Highly gifted children reach the milestones of cognitive development earlier than others. From an early age chronological age and cognitive maturity do not coincide and as they grow older they are different from their age group above all through their complex way of thinking and unusual areas of interest. This means that they live in an involuntary exceptional situation and are constantly forced to choose between the fundamental needs of “social belonging” and “personal development”.

Being highly gifted is a potential and for a great variety of reasons is not expressed automatically in achievement that is recognisable to outsiders. For this reason many of the most intelligent, creative and intellectually independent children are not recognised as such. Instead they are wrongly diagnosed with emotional, psychological or learning and behavioural disorders. Active refusal to cooperate, a slump in achievement, dropping out of school and psychosomatic illnesses can be the consequence of permanent mental underload, constant boredom and a feeling of exclusion. Conversely there are also highly gifted children who as a result of their intelligence are able to hide their problems and adapt.

In order to obtain some understanding of this phenomenon, scientists have developed various models of intelligence since the start of the last century: the model of general intelligence, measured with a classic IQ test, and of multiple intelligences. While the IQ test measures the fields of linguistic, logical, mathematical, visual and spatial thinking ability, as well as rapid working memory and observational skills, the multiple intelligences with the fields of “emotional, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence” elude empirical measurement. So the 130 IQ points which are deemed to be the threshold in the classic IQ test for being diagnosed as highly gifted would appear to fall very far short of grasping the potential and the special intrapersonal abilities of such people – a reason for the scientific discourse also to open up to the subjects of high sensitivity and high creativity.

Do being highly gifted and Waldorf education go together?

Waldorf education unfortunately suffers from the reputation of not being an appropriate school for highly gifted children. That may seem surprising, given that if we look at the course of Rudolf Steiner’s life and his work we can gain the impression that he himself was highly, indeed, extremely gifted and suffered as a child because of the nature of his thinking and because he was different. Thus he writes about himself as a nine-year-old boy: “[...] here too it was the case that I was filled with questions which I had to carry around within me unanswered. Indeed, these questions about all kinds of things made me quite lonely as a boy. [...] because I wanted to obtain firm reference points above all through the Critique of Pure Reason to come to terms with my own thinking.”

Here Steiner describes a problem which is typical for highly gifted children. From a very early age, not to say from too early an age, he studied the most difficult and all-encompassing questions and read texts – here Kant – which are extremely unusual for pupils of his age. Although with regard to his stage of development he should primarily have concerned himself with the development of his etheric body (life forces) – so from the perspective of Waldorf education should rather have been climbing trees, immersing himself in drawing braided patterns and listening to legends about the saints – he possessed an intellectual and mental maturity which went far beyond the classic developmental stage of an ordinary pupil.

This shift illustrates the dilemma in which highly gifted children find themselves. Because their cognitive and intellectual abilities reveal themselves both at an earlier stage and in a more pronounced form, they are in a permanent state of imbalance. While the lower constitutional elements of the human being are still at work, depending on age, the higher soul and spiritual constitutional elements of the human being are already breaking through. At the same time these children find it difficult to integrate into the class community because of their early maturity – that made Steiner an outsider.

With Steiner’s insight into the human being and his collected lectures, Waldorf education possesses a stock of information to explain the phenomenon, identify highly gifted children and support them appropriately. He developed a person and development-centred holistic system of education. In order to fully develop the personality and abilities of the child, all the learning content is guided by the physical, intellectual and emotional development of the child – every learning content, every support measure has a reason. This fundamentally distinguishes Waldorf education from mainstream schools which have as their basis the step-by-step communication of the subject matter with the subject-specific teaching methodology.

As Steiner says in The Child’s Changing Consciousness as the Basis of Pedagogical Practice: “Now it might well be, if luck smiles on us, that among the pupils before us there might be – alongside the exceptionally stupid ones, about whom, however, we will also still come to talk – three or four brilliant children. And you will agree with me that not  every genius should be turned into a teacher and that it will be the case not that infrequently that the teacher is not as brilliant as those will one day be who had to be taught and brought up by him. But the teacher must not only properly bring up and teach those who can become like him but also those who must grow far beyond him in accordance with their abilities.” Here Steiner challenges the teachers directly also to look after those children and “bring up and educate them properly” who bear the potential of genius within them.

But how? The so-called child observation he developed is a firm part of teachers’ meetings and ideal for recognising highly gifted children. Here a child can reveal itself in all its abilities, special traits and karmic destiny – including being highly gifted.

Teachers have an initial starting point for their practical identification of highly gifted pupils: thinking in great, overarching contexts. Highly gifted children engage with thought processes when they are challenged to deliver “maximum performance”. In order to recognise highly gifted pupils, it can be helpful to give them open tasks which connect several complex subject areas and ask them to find their own questions and answers. Since highly gifted children think in terms of fields of possibilities, they often find intriguing questions with surprising answers. Asking questions that are much too difficult is also helpful in identifying highly gifted children.

When pupils in mathematics lessons keep making easy mistakes, exercises from higher classes might be a welcome challenge for them to think for themselves. They like to be occupied with recognising patters and finding connections. But beware: since highly gifted pupils jump from thought to thought, many of them cannot explain the process and the individual steps how they came to the result. Furthermore, highly gifted children love theoretical thought constructs. So questions and subject matter from theoretical physics, astrophysics, projective geometry, philosophy or ethics can be particularly suited for identifying them.

Once a highly gifted child has been recognised – what then? How can teachers do justice to the development of these pupils? Here, once again, it is the review of the child which can help. If we look at Steiner’s first child observation, then – having in a first step observed the pupil in the here and now and in a second step looked at their past – he made suggestions in a third step about how to deal with the pupil in the future.

The perception and identification of such giftedness in a child review is the most important and at the same time the most basic step because then highly gifted children can hope finally to feel that they are seen. If the college of teachers accepts that a child is highly gifted, the pupil concerned can integrate their sometimes split off ability and their potential can begin to unfold.

In order to “bring up and teach” highly gifted children “in the right way”, teachers should meet their need for the appropriate challenge to their thinking without, however, neglecting those parts of the child’s development which are not related to cognitive ability. For this purpose – to unfold the ability of highly gifted children in the lesson and develop their personality – the Waldorf curriculum offers a wealth of suggestions with its lesson content attuned to the development of the child. Depending on the level of cognitive and emotional maturity, lesson content from higher grades can flow into internally differentiated lessons. Thus a highly gifted child that hears fairy tales in class 1, but whose cognitive maturity corresponds to class 4, could be given the task of investigating and localising the local history of these fairy tales. Alongside the cognitive challenge, it would help the awakening “I” of the highly gifted pupil to find its orientation in its environment and find its own relationship with the world because this is one thing which, as a rule, causes highly gifted children the greatest difficulties because of the incongruent development of their abilities.

How and by what means can I do justice to the child in their physical, emotional and intellectual development? Waldorf education offers the best conditions for highly gifted children to learn to “fly high” and to be able to develop healthily in their physical, emotional and intellectual personality.

About the author: Dr Birgit Wegerich-Bauer is a qualified Waldorf teacher and lecturer on teacher training and further training courses on the subject of highly gifted children. Initiator and board member of Myndun e.V. – hochbegabt | hochkreativ | neurointensiv

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