How a child’s drawing can help with early detection of giftedness

How a child’s drawing can help with early detection of giftedness

A toddler drawing a person with a hair clip, teeth, or eyelashes. It may be a sign of giftedness, according to PhD research by Sven Mathijssen. He hopes to get gifted children in view at an earlier stage.

Image: Anastasia Shuraeva / Pexels

Rather than talking about ‘highly gifted children,’ child and adolescent psychologist Sven Mathijssen prefers to talk about children with characteristics of giftedness, he clarifies at his bright flexible workstation in the Maria Montessori building. Looking out over the lively Nijmegen university campus, he enthusiastically talks about his recently completed PhD research at Tilburg University.

‘Otherwise you imply a kind of prototype, which children may or may not meet. But it’s not a homogeneous group; there are different characteristics of giftedness. Not every child shows the same characteristics.’

As deputy head instructor at the Radboud International Training on High Ability (RITHA), Mathijssen trains teachers, psychologists, and remedial educationalists who work with children and adults with characteristics of giftedness. He also shares knowledge about it in his work as editor-in-chief of Talent, a magazine for education professionals.

And this is much needed because the phenomenon regularly goes unrecognized, according to the psychologist. With dire consequences: ‘If you are not seen in your needs and are not given what you need to develop your talents, you can become dulled and very unhappy.

‘This ultimately applies to all children, but I think children with characteristics of giftedness are more at risk in our regular education system.’

Giftedness is not a new concept, why is it still often overlooked?

‘It is not a standard part of teacher and psychology training in the Netherlands. If you’re not trained in observing certain characteristics, then you don’t really know what to look for either.’

We are quick to label remarkably smart children as highly gifted, but what exactly is giftedness?

Sven Mathijssen during his defense on March 22, 2023

‘To answer that unequivocally is difficult. With everything I am going to say, there will be people who disagree. I base my views on the literature and my practical experiences. To summarize: children with characteristics of giftedness give indications of a certain potential, talents, and needs, which regular education does not provide. Thus, special activities are needed to develop those talents.

‘Observing that a child exhibits these characteristics actually says very little. You want to know which characteristics, and especially: what does that mean in the school context? For example, if a child is very strong in coming up with all kinds of ideas, but then becomes so absorbed in brainstorming that he or she is unable to put them into practice, nothing will come of it in the end. Such a child needs help in making decisions.’

So being very gifted is not a predictor of success?

‘No, a certain potential does not manifest itself automatically, scientists agree. It depends on personal factors, but also on how important you yourself think it is. Suppose someone is very good at math, but doesn’t find it particularly interesting, he probably won’t study math to deepen that talent. There are also children who are good at so many things, then you have to choose, what do I pursue? You can get stuck in that too.’

What can you be gifted in?

‘If you ask about the consensus in the literature, high intelligence almost always comes back. Which is not necessarily the same as a high score on an IQ test. There are different areas in which you can expose talent. Children can be intellectually or creatively gifted. They can excel in sports, music, or art. So intelligent behavior is expressed in different ways, an IQ test is one of the means to find out: what is going on here and what is needed?’

In your dissertation, you explore another way to discover giftedness, which is by studying children’s drawings. What can a drawing tell us about possible talents?

‘Drawing involves creativity, and that is seen by many researchers as one of the important facets of giftedness. Being able to think creatively, out of the box, coming up with unusual solutions to a problem. Precisely because of that interface, we thought it worthwhile to investigate what a human figure drawing can say about this.’

How did you address this specifically?

‘Among other things, we had 206 children aged four to six draw a person. Two years later, we asked parents if their child received educational modifications: did they skip a class, perhaps participated in a plus class, or received curriculum enrichment (offering extra or different material that challenges the child more, ed.)? In other words, does this child need more at school than is offered as a standard?

‘Based on the responses, we divided the drawings into two groups; children who received enriched curriculum or regular education. By studying more closely exactly what the children had drawn, we were able to distinguish ‘special characteristics’. Features that appeared on less than 15 percent of the drawings or were drawn only or more often by the ‘enriched’ children.

Drawing girl, drawn by an eight-year-old from an earlier study by Sven Mathijssen

‘Based on the drawing or not drawing of one or more of these special characteristics, we were ultimately able to predict for seventy percent whether a child received an enriched or regular curriculum. Except for the six-year-olds, possibly due to the sample being too small or perhaps due to adaptive behavior. Children who attend school often adapt their drawings to each other.’

What particular features did you see in the drawings?

‘Four-year-olds from the enriched group drew eyelashes, a nose bridge, or a hair clip, for example. And the five-year-olds drew an iris, teeth, big hands, or a thumb.

‘Together with my co-supervisor, Max Feltzer, I looked at and scored a lot of drawings. We did this separately, blindly, and independently. We didn’t know whether the drawing was of a boy or girl or how old the child was. If we really disagreed, we sometimes sat down together and looked at it: is this a nostril or a nose piercing?’

What is the practical value of this research?

‘My dissertation proved: it can be done. But how exactly? Ideally, I would like to investigate now whether we can predict on the basis of human figure drawings whether or not a child needs enriched curriculum. And then take a look in two years, is that prediction correct? There is no such concrete screening instrument yet.’

What can such a screening tool ultimately give us?

‘You can’t put every child through the wringer; that’s expensive and time-consuming. That’s why we usually don’t investigate giftedness until problems arise. A child shows rebellious behavior, or what I often heard as a psychologist, parents indicate that they are losing their child a bit. You want to get ahead of that.

‘If you could filter with a drawing: with this child, it might be good to look further, then you have a simple and inexpensive means by which you can catch signals early.

‘What I absolutely would not do is say, aha, this five-year-old is drawing an iris, straight to the enrichment class. A drawing doesn’t tell you exactly what someone needs, but it can highlight a child. Which lets you know: we need to keep a close eye on this student because he probably belongs to the group that needs more than the school offers as a standard. If a drawing can serve that purpose, we have accomplished a great deal.’

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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