Gifted children talk late

Giftedness in early childhood - recognition and action

From: BMW Group (Ed.): Small children - great talent. Recognize and encourage gifted children. Possibilities and limits of the kindergarten. Munich: BMW Group 2000, pp. 25-37

Franz J. Mönks

Developmental psychology deals with the systematic research of change and transformation processes in the motives and behavior of people. She wants to know which courses are continuous or discontinuous and under which conditions. Changes in behavior occur over the entire lifespan. Above all, developmental psychology wants to research the relationships between conditioning factors - genetic or social - and the actual behavior of a person. Change processes are the result of interactions between the individual and his or her environment, i.e. development is always determined on two sides, by nature (system) and the environment. Behavioral genetics research has shown (Thompson & Plomin, 2000) that human development is influenced to a large extent by the environment, but that the genetic potential actively "seeks" environments that match this potential (genotype) . For example, we look for friends and leisure activities that match our own inclinations. Taking these aspects into account, we define psychological development as follows:

"Mental development is a dynamic and lifelong process. The interactions (interactions) between individual dispositions and the social environment determine which behavior (action) and which behavioral or action motives are awakened and manifested. The calendar age is not an independent variable here, but as Time dimension a framework for the organization of the development data " (Mönks & Knoers, 1996, p. 14).

As a social guideline, the calendar age is often an obstacle to development, especially for gifted children. As early as 1936, the Dutch psychologist Luning Prak criticized the normative use of the calendar age. Using the keyword "the madness of the calendar age", he denounces the dogmatized application of the calendar age. Intellectually gifted children in particular cannot be classified according to chronological age due to their developmental advantage. The calendar age has always been the only criterion for starting primary school. Intellectually precocious children "may" only be admitted to primary school from the age of six. This is a fact that is valid almost worldwide. Why should school laws that are based on the average also apply to children who have a clear developmental advantage?

Each individual lives in a specific epoch, in a specific socio-cultural environment, in a given family constellation. All of these and many other environmental variables can influence individual development in a positive, but also in a negative sense. Basically, the creativity and willingness to make efforts of parents and other educators are often decisive for whether, for example, a musically or intellectually gifted child develops in such a way that it achieves the corresponding performance (excellence in performance). Parents need to find good teachers, provide appropriate education and training, and most importantly, they need to raise the child in such a way that they remain motivated to make an effort and perform. It is crucial that the child does not shy away from any effort and does not avoid hardship. Here lies the core for them intrinsic motivation: the willingness to make an effort does not arise from coercion, but from joy, i.e. a goal is pursued because one wants to achieve the realization. This achievement of objectives then often has to be enforced against resistance or against unfavorable conditions. If the motive is strong enough internally, goals are also achievable. Every talent needs supportive and stimulating development aid! This general statement is of course always true and true for all children. The question that arises here, however, with regard to gifted children is: do they - compared to average gifted children - have different social-emotional needs and how can educators meet these developmental needs in a satisfactory way?

Some aspects of children's cognitive and socio-emotional development

In developmental psychology a general distinction is made between Personality development, as more cognitive and social development. A person's personality is often viewed as verbal, cognitive, and emotional behavior in a social context. It is possible to make a distinction between social and cognitive development, but it is not possible to separate them from one another. In child development, cognitive development is of central importance with regard to social development. A good example here is the newborn's first attachment behavior. Bonding relationship and attachment security (attachment) as the first social reference in toddlerhood is fundamental for the further social-emotional development of a person (see topic booklet "Bonding", Psychology in education and teaching,3, Volume 47, 2000). For the development of attachment behavior, the child must be able to see the face of its mother (or another caregiver) from other faces distinguish (to discriminate) and at the same time the child must be able to do so, the mother to recognize again (to recognize) as the same person they saw yesterday and many other days before.

This example makes it clear that cognitive development in the area of ​​discrimination and recognition is not the root cause of social-emotional development, but is a necessary prerequisite. There are many direct links between cognitive skills and the child's social and emotional development. This means that a child's social interaction is restricted by his or her cognitive abilities or is expanded. Gifted children with a cognitive developmental lead will be "different" than normal developers in their social and emotional behavior. There is hardly any scientific research data in this regard.

The research literature shows that newborns differ from one another in at least three areas of behavior from the start: Activity level, irritability (irritability) and responsiveness (Bee, 1995). Research data repeatedly show that in these behavioral areas, personality differences in newborns can be determined at an early stage. However, there are no reliable research results as to whether and to what extent gifted newborns behave differently in this regard.

Many individual case studies and communications from parents regarding early behavior in gifted children largely agree that these children have a high level of activity show and in increased irritability are. What is striking, however, is that irritability is not mentioned in all reports of gifted newborns. Increased versus low irritability is understood to mean the following: some newborns are screamers, others are not; some babies are restless sleepers and seem unable to sleep, while others are excellent sleepers; some babies are constantly "exploring" their surroundings, others act as if they are not interested in the surroundings.

This changeable behavior pattern makes it clear that it is difficult to draw "secure" and fixed behavior patterns of gifted toddlers. However, it is an established fact that it is extremely important for the socio-emotional development of every child that educators and parents "correctly" address the individual personality traits of children from an early age. This is not an easy task, especially when dealing with gifted children, because they are often bundles of energy that never tire of asking urgent questions. The question that arises from this is: How can we recognize the characteristic (cognitive) special abilities of gifted children and what problems in bringing up or dealing with can arise from this. For example, a high level of energy and activity in the newborn can create the greatest educational difficulties when parents are unable to cope with this individual characteristic. If parents are unable or unwilling to meet the specific developmental needs of such a child, the child can become "difficult to raise" or become an insecure and dependent individual.

The American psychologist Webb (1993) attempted to systematically present the characteristic behavioral features of gifted children and the possible behavioral problems resulting from them (see Table 1). Only behavioral characteristics are listed here, if applicable to small children.

Table 1: Overview of characteristic (cognitive) behavioral features in gifted children and possible behavioral problems resulting from them (adapted from Webb, 1993, p. 528)

 Behavioral traitsPossible behavior problems
1Rapid information acquisition and processing.Becomes impatient when others are slowing down; Repetition is rejected.
2Inquisitive behavior and intellectual curiosity; intrinsic motivation; get to the bottom of the matter.Stubborn; defies regulations; seems to have innumerable interests; expects something similar from others.
3It's fun to solve problems and be intellectually active.Details are considered unimportant; does not see the point of practice and repetition.
4Likes to organize and structure people and things: inclination to systematize.Is experienced as dirigistic, dominant or rough.
5Large vocabulary and good phrasing; great knowledge of various subject areas.Uses verbal talent to avoid awkward situations; School and peers are experienced as boring; is seen by others as a "know-it-all".
6Creative and inventive; loves to do things "very differently".What is already known does not need to be done again; others experience this as inappropriate and negative behavior.
7Very intense concentration; large attention span for areas that are experienced as interesting; purposeful behavior and perseverance.Does not tolerate interruption; in periods of increased devotion to tasks, duties and people are neglected; is experienced as stubborn.
8Sensitive and great empathy; demands to be accepted by others.Sensitive to criticism and rejection from peers; Desire for recognition; Feeling alienated, "to be different".
9High level of energy, alertness and need for activity; Periods of extremely high tension.Doing nothing, inactivity leads to frustration; The urge to be active can disturb others; can be experienced as hyperactive and therefore disturbing, constant search for new stimuli.
10High degree of independence; prefers individual work; great confidence.Can reject suggestions from parents as "unnecessary"; shows unconventional behavior.
11Great sense of humor.Recognizes the absurdities of situations; Humor is often not recognized as such by adults and other children in kindergarten; can potentially turn into a class clown for attention.

It should be emphasized again that certain behaviors of gifted individuals lead to problematic social relationships can, it is not a necessary consequence. However, since the above-mentioned behavioral characteristics are more present in gifted children, the likelihood of disruptive behavior is also more likely.

Like many others, Webb (1993) tried to represent endogenously certain core properties of gifted children. The following five characteristics are mentioned again and again.

  1. Desire to learn: the inner drive for knowledge; pronounced striving for knowledge.
  2. Perfectionism: the urge to want to know everything exactly and completely; a job has to be right down to the smallest detail.
  3. Creativity: the ability to discover and apply new and different solutions.
  4. Personal engagement: emotional relatedness, strong feelings of empathy; want to fully commit to one cause.
  5. Idealism: strongly developed moral feeling; the well-being of human existence requires personal commitment. This behavioral characteristic comes to the fore more in adolescence.

The first four core properties mentioned are already noticeable in small children. The core properties shown are differently pronounced between and intra-individually. A good example of the 2nd and 4th behavioral trait is the kindergarten child Jutta. When she was four years old, she witnessed a cat being killed in traffic. For days she wanted to know everything about life and death. She did not give up until she came to the conclusion: what is the meaning of my life and as a result she had death wishes (see Mönks & Ypenburg, 2000, p. 61f.). Gifted toddlers often have a very strong empathy and can also think so logically that parents - as in the case of Jutta - are deeply frightened and seek help from experts.

Many parents also experience that trait creativity in connection with strong personal commitment can lead to the fact that gifted children often place unrealistically high demands on themselves. Too high a level of aspiration can be detrimental to healthy personal development. Nevertheless, it is important that the creativity of the child is not restricted, especially in toddler and kindergarten age. The book offers good guidance in this regard What is in children (Becker-Textor, 1997).

Observations in gifted toddlers

As has been emphasized several times, there are hardly any reliable developmental psychological research data, especially for gifted toddlers. Observation data that we have been able to collect over the years are given below. There are nine areas of behavior. Sentences in quotation marks are literal statements made by children.

1) Motor development:

  • can often walk as early as 10 months of age;
  • early development of fine motor skills: before the age of 10 months, carefully turn the pages of a book with your thumb and forefinger (characteristic of the age of 18 months);
  • high energy level;
  • around 20% of gifted toddlers need less sleep, while around 20% are late risers and around 60% are normal sleepers.

2) Realistic self-concept:

  • By the age of around three they already know the strengths and weaknesses of their capabilities.
  • They relate their own abilities to other children and recognize the differences.
  • They deal with their own identity very early on, deal with it, which is usually a central question in adolescence.

3) Productive / Independent Thinking:

  • Indicators of independent thinking are recognizable very early on (straightforward, no ruminants).
  • Thinking is logical-progressive and intuitive.
  • The personal and physical environment is divided into categories. They spontaneously express their affection and dislike: they feel attracted to certain people they hardly know; others don't like them. At the age of four months, children already have categories of colors and shapes; when they are less than 1 year old, they have an idea of ​​day, night and light ("lamps give light").
  • They quickly reflect on their surroundings and habituate them. They have a high level of built-up knowledge about their personal and physical environment.
  • The knowledge of causal relationships is already present in the preverbal period, e.g. the relationship between switch and electric light; at the age of 1½ the relationship between gloves and their function is known: protection from the cold.
  • Often the children can read very early and / or show an early arithmetic (not always) intellectual curiosity.

4) Metacognition (ability to reflect on one's own thinking, awareness and control of cognitive processes):

  • At the age of three the children are able to reflect on their own thinking (child: "I can think").
  • Between the ages of three and four they have concepts of what is "old" and "young". They relate this to physical strength and conclude that the peak of physical strength lies in mid-life (adulthood).
  • You experience consciously that processes run continuously. (Concept of continuity).

5) Role assumption / empathy (ability to empathize with the motives, feelings and behavior of other people):

  • A distinction is made between perceptual, conceptual and emotional / motivational roles.
  • In the second year of life you are able to take on the role of other people / animals / objects. ("The dog barks because he doesn't like being kept on a leash."; "The doll is dreaming about scary animals.")

6) Personality:

  • Gifted children are rarely overly busy and confused.
  • You have a sense of humor.
  • They have their own point of view, are persistent, and struggle to agree with others.
  • From one moment to the next they can appear very adult and suddenly fall into a typically childish bad mood.

7) Explore and Explore:

  • combined with attention and alertness: wanting to see everything, following noises, interest in classical music, high degree of curiosity.
  • explore more and more thoroughly than usual.
  • able to pick up different signals at the same time.

8) Task concentration / motivation:

  • high level of concentration.
  • very interested and focused when a new toy is offered (good toys have as few components as possible and as many options as possible; modern toys usually have a maximum of components and a minimum of options).

9) Linguistic development:

  • Generally speaking early, rich vocabulary, correct use of grammar.
  • often have a passive vocabulary of more than 100 words by the age of 10 months (usually by the age of 1 ½ - 2 years).
  • The development of one- to two-word sentences starts earlier (less than a year) and happens faster.
  • two variants: 1. The active use of the language begins early and with rapid progress. 2. The active use of the language starts late, but then with complete and correct sentences (indication of perfectionism)

10) Motor development:

  • can often walk as early as 10 months of age
  • Early development of fine motor skills: leaf through the pages of a book with your thumb and forefinger before you are 10 months old (characteristic of the age of 18 months).
  • high energy level.
  • requires less sleep (over 20% of gifted children: 20% sleep late and over 60% are normal sleepers).

In summary we can say that human behavior is often fundamentally shaped in infancy. Confirmed developmental psychological statements about the early development of gifted children can only be made with reservations. Authors who write about gifted children agree that a salient characteristic of these children is an overall developmental edge. The existing textbooks on developmental psychology represent general development processes, i.e. they are aimed at "normal development". The American developmental psychologist David Feldman takes the view that universal theories, which are aimed at "normal development", are unsuitable for research into the development of gifted children. Precisely because gifted children cannot be judged by "normal standards", we need a non-universal theory, a theory that focuses on the uniqueness of an individual (Feldman, 2000). It is clear that there is a great need for research, especially with regard to the development of gifted and talented children. The observation data presented in this article can be an important help in getting out.


Becker-Textor, I. (1997). What is in children. Freiburg i.Br .: Herder.

Bee, H. (1994). Lifespan Development. New York: Harper Collins.

Feldman, D.F. (2000). Developmental Theory and the Expression of Gifts and Talents. In C.F.M. van Lieshout & P.G. Heymans (Eds.), Developing Talent Across the Life Span: A Festschrift for Franz Mönks. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Mönks, F.J. & Knoers, A.M.P. (1996). Developmental Psychology Textbook. Munich: Reinhardt.

Mönks, F.J. & Ypenburg, I.H. (2000). Our child is gifted. Munich: Reinhardt.

Thompson, L.A. & Plomin, R. (2000). Genetic Tools for Exploring Individual Differences in Intelligence. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks, R.J. Sternberg & R.F. Subotnik (Eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Webb, J.T. (1993). Nurturing Social-Emotional Development of Gifted Children. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks & A.H. Passow (Eds.), International Handbook of Research and Development of Giftedness and Talent. Oxford: Pergamon Press.


Prof. Dr. Franz J. Mönks
University of Nijmegen
Center for Talent Research