Early Childhood Education



Temperament is a set of personal characteristics and patterns that emerge early in life and persist over time. Most researchers and clinicians interpret temperament as the result of innate biological and heritable predispositions. Lists of temperamental traits vary, including characteristics as disparate as activity level and introversion or shyness. Combinations of temperamental characteristics are often grouped together to describe a child’s personality profile, an “easy child” or “the difficult child.” Although seen as long-standing, such traits are not immutable. At any given time, a child’s temperament represents both constitutional predispositions and the history of how the child’s environment has responded to those traits.

The uniqueness of individual temperament has been recognized throughout history and across cultures. Stories about people almost always involve description of temperament; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, was impulsive and indecisive at the same time. A person’s temperament can be what attracts others or pushes them away. An understanding of temperament can help early childhood educators identify children’s learning styles, communicate more effectively with parents, and reflect on their own expectations of children.

Among the most thorough longitudinal investigations of temperament is that of Thomas and Chess. These researchers followed children from early infancy into adulthood periodically rating their subjects on nine characteristics, activity level, rhythmicity, adaptability, approach-withdrawal, mood, intensity of reaction, attention span-persistence, distractibility, and threshold of response. Over the years they have found that these traits tend to persist over time; they are not entirely immutable, and certain clusters of traits may make success in school more difficult to achieve. For example, a highly active child who is both distractible and not persistent at tasks may have difficulty in a structured school setting. Some children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD-ADHD) may be at the extreme end of what Thomas and Chess have described as a pattern of behavioral characteristics.

One characteristic that has received a great deal of attention by both developmental psychologists and early educators is shyness or introversion. Every group that an early childhood educator encounters will include some children who are outgoing and gregarious and others who are passive and avoid social contact. The research of Jerome Kagan demonstrates that babies who respond to novel experiences with fussiness at 4 months tend to be shy children in their preschool and early school years. According to Kagan, these children have a physiological response to what they experience as stressful. The resultant behavior pattern may vary from immediate withdrawal to cautious approach depending on how the child has been supported throughout childhood in new situations, but the underlying physiological response reflects an innate predisposition.

Temperamental characteristics carry different meanings in different cultural settings. For example, among the Inuit studied by Jean Briggs (1998) the degree of desired fearfulness of adults contrasts with the gregariousness encouraged in many European American families. In another example, Chinese child-rearing practices seem to support reticence as a strength, whereas shyness is seen as undesirable in Canadian families (Chen et al., 1998).

Parents may respond differently to children with different temperaments. Babies born with a tendency to be irritable may have parents who respond to these traits with their own discomfort and even anger or they may provide a soothing environment. Over time these children may look very different from each other despite their innate temperamental tendencies. One expresses irritability in responding to new situations, the other mediates her emotional response with the self-regulating strategies she learned from responsive caregiving. The behavioral match or mismatch between parents and children is partly attributable to temperament. Such match or mismatch may also operate in teacher-child interactions.

In many early childhood classrooms it is the active, gregarious children that draw attention from the teacher and the quiet, passive children who seem to carry on without much teacher involvement. An understanding of the temperamental profile of each child can help avoid such inequity in classrooms. As it relates to learning, for example in how a child approaches new curriculum materials, an understanding of temperament allows the teacher to support each child’s learning process. One child may be very persistent to the point of not wanting to clean up when the time for project work is over; another child may require a good deal of support to stay with an activity. Such understanding may also help in managing peer interactions; an impulsive child who approaches other children with passion and energy may require help in softening his approach so that other children can tolerate his play. Conversely, the more socially passive child may need support in entering a mutual play situation.

Temperament is also a useful topic for communication with parents. Parents want teachers to know their children as people. A simple description of the child’s developmental progress according to standard sets of milestones rarely convinces parents that the teacher truly knows the child. Temperament provides a vehicle for a more complete communication about the child and what the child is capable of. T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints approach utilizes temperament as a particularly effective way of establishing common understanding of the child in developing a relationship with a parent.

Temperament tells a teacher how a child operates in the world of materials and people. As such it provides an essential means for understanding children as unique individuals rather than as a collection of skills or developmental competencies. See also Parent and Parent Involvement.

Further Readings: Bates, J., and M. Rothbart, eds. (1989). Temperament in childhood. Chichester, England: Wiley. Briggs, J. (1998). Inuit morality play: The emotional education of a three-year-old. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Chen, X., K. Rubin, G. Cen, P. Hastings, H. Chen, and S. Stewart (1998). Child-rearing attitudes and behavioral inhibition in Chinese and Canadian toddlers: A cross-cultural study. Developmental Psychology 34(4), 677-686; Kagan, J., and N. Snidman (1991). Temperamental factors in human development. The American Psychologist 46(8), 856; Kristal,J. (2005). The temperament perspective: Working with children’s behavioral styles. New York: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co. Miller, Peggy J., R. Potts, Heidi Fung, Lisa Hoogstra, and Julie Mintz (1990). Narrative practices and the social construction of self in childhood. American Ethnologist 17, 292-311; Thomas, A., and S. Chess (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

John Hornstein