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Can children's drawings help with early detection of giftedness?

Potential talents of children with characteristics of giftedness are not always seen in mainstream education. However, children's drawings can play a role in early identification of their needs and talents, argues psychologist Sven Mathijssen in his PhD thesis entitled 'Back to the drawing board: Potential indicators of giftedness in human figure drawings', which Sven defended at Tilburg University on 22 March 2023 14:00h. 

Image: Larissa Rand

Promotie Sven Mathijssen

Cover proefschrift Sven MathijssenMathijssen's thesis provides evidence for the possibility that human figure drawings can help in early identification of children whose talents might not fully flourish in mainstream education. In his research, he analysed, among other things, 'sign IQs': the scores resulting from the method of analysing people drawings as it has been carried out for over a century, and these scores should say something about children's intelligence. He did this for 120 children aged 7 to 9. Of this group, 43 children received gifted education and 73 received regular education. However, Mathijssen found that the sign IQs of the children receiving gifted education did not differ from those receiving regular education. However, he did find that the children from gifted education drew some details that did not appear in the drawings of the other group. 

Special features as an indicator of enriched education

Mathijssen also analysed the drawings of 206 children aged 4 to 6. Two years after the drawings were made, parents were asked whether the children had had educational modifications. Based on the answers, two groups were created: children who had had enriched education and those who received regular education. The statistical analyses showed that whether or not children drew 'special features' - features that were drawn only or more often by the children who received enriched education - was about 70% good at predicting whether children received enriched education or regular education. This was true only for 4- and 5-year-olds, though. For the 6-year-olds it did not, partly because of the small number of 6-year-olds in the study. These are nice findings, but to say that they can serve as a screening tool is too early. More research is needed for that. 

Children draw 'by themselves'

For children with characteristics of giftedness, it is not always clear what is needed for them to allow their talent to flourish. 'As a result, not only talent is lost, but they can also become unhappy,' Mathijssen argues. To discover children's talents, psychological testing is often done, but this is often very time-consuming, expensive and not possible for everyone. Therefore, there seem to be practical advantages to using children's drawings as a screening tool. A good screening tool works like a sieve, he says: "All children can be asked to draw, without it costing much time or money. Often children also draw by themselves from an early age. They therefore do not easily shy away from a drawing assignment. If certain things stand out in a child's drawing, it can be a reason to keep a closer eye on that child's school progress'. 

Keeping an eye out for unique talents

Yet he cautions that this indication still says nothing about potential talents and educational needs of the individual child. To determine exactly what these children need at school, follow-up research should be conducted, for instance through psychological testing. Mathijssen: 'We therefore advised professionals in the field against using sign IQs for signalling purposes and instead analysing menu drawings at item level for possible indicators of giftedness.' Mathijssen hopes that fellow researchers will join him in building on this thesis to develop the intended screening instrument. 

Download the dissertation

Sven Mathijssen

Sven Mathijssen was born in 's-Hertogenbosch on 28 July 1990. He studied Psychology at Tilburg University and did internships at Centre for Giftedness Research (CBO Talent Development) at Radboud University and at PPF Centre for High Development Potential (formerly Psychologenpraktijk Frumau). Sven is the deputy chief trainer of the Radboud International Training on High Ability (RITHA) and editor-in-chief of Talent magazine, a popular science journal on giftedness.

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