Feisty, Adaptable, and Cautious: Recognizing and Understanding Children's Temperament
By Amy Sussna Klein

Competencies for Temperament Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competency that can be used for this article is:

• To support social and emotional development and provide positive guidance.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.


This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability areas:

• The ability to enhance children’s social and emotional development.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

Imagine yourself in a classroom of three-year-olds. One teacher actively observes the children while the other teacher prepares a family-style lunch. The children are having “free play.” Rachel watches three children explore with the new funnels and water wheels on the water table. Nora paints alongside another child at an easel. Sam is one of three children in the dramatic play area pretending to be at a restaurant. The rest of the children are busy experimenting with ramps in the block area and using markers at the writing table.

One of the teachers gives a five-minute warning for clean up. After the children clean up, they’ll be served their special lunch of stone soup they prepared yesterday afternoon. Five minutes later, the music starts, “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere, clean up, clean up, everybody do their share….” Nora continues painting, Sam washes his hands, and Rachel continues watching the other children. Why are these children reacting differently and what does this suggest that might be useful for the teachers to know? Nora, Sam, and Rachel have different temperaments and they each react differently to classroom situations.


What Is Temperament?

Temperament can be defined as stable, individual differences in both the intensity and quality of emotional reaction (Goldsmith, Buss, Plomin, Rothbart, Thomas, Chess, Hinde, & McCall, 1987). Much of what is known about temperament comes from a study initiated by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess in 1956 (Thomas & Chess, 1977). This study is the most comprehensive and longest-lasting study of temperament to date (Berk, 2000). The study, which took a total of 141 children that were only a few months old and followed them well into their adulthood, found that there are three main categories of temperament, and that each is composed of a mixture of different attributes, such as the child’s activity level, reactions, moods, and adaptability. The relationships between these traits and the three temperaments will be described in more detail in the following sections. However, the chart above is a synopsis from Zabel and Zabel (1999, p. 77).




Range of Behavior

1.   Activity Level

Children that move around a lot (e.g., fidget) ---- passive (e.g., quiet)

2.   Rhythmicity

Regularity ----- irregularity, with sleeping, eating, toileting

3.   Approach/ Withdrawal

Approach ---- withdrawal, with new situations and people (e.g., some children smile easily at new people, and try new foods readily)

4.   Adaptability

Adapts quickly ---- adapts slowly (e.g., to new routines)

5.   Intensity of reaction

Low intensity reaction ---- high intensity reaction (e.g., scream) to environmental stimuli

6.   Threshold of responsiveness

Responds to even mild stimuli ---- responds only to strong stimuli (e.g., noises, sensory objects)

7.   Quality of mood

Positive (e.g., happy) ---- negative

8.   Distractibility

Easily distracted by external stimuli ---- maintains focus

9.   Attention Span

Gives up easily ---- persistent


A child’s temperament influences how he adjusts to situations and what support systems he finds helpful (Miller, 1996). Different temperaments are just different – one is not better than another. Children are either born with a specific temperament, or they develop a temperament as a result of genetic or environmental factors (Beaty, 1999). Temperament develops from the interaction between a child’s inclination to act a certain way and the reactions from others (Berk, 2000). “Temperamental styles often stimulate consistent reactions from other people, which, in turn, mold the child’s social development (Berk, 2000, p. 402). Since temperament is influenced by the people children interact with, it is critical that teachers be aware of them and know how to handle the three major temperaments. Awareness will help early childhood educators: 1) increase their understanding of each child; 2) make stronger connections with each individual child; and 3) facilitate a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth.


Temperament Labels

Different labels have been used to describe the three main temperaments. The labels designated by the California State Department of Education Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development (1990), for instance, are: feisty, flexible, and fearful. Chess and Thomas (1977), however, labeled the three main temperaments: difficult, easy, and slow-to-warm-up. Unfortunately, the latter labels have often been misinterpreted and these misinterpretations have led to inappropriate judgments. Labels such as “difficult,” “slow-to-warm-up,” and “fearful” can have negative connotations. Thus, the positive aspects of children with these dispositions may be ignored. Furthermore, misinterpretations of these labels may be off-putting and hurtful to parents and children. Even a label such as “easy,” which has a positive connotation, may not serve children well. Children labeled as “easy” may not be encouraged to express their needs, and teachers may be more likely to miss some important behaviors of “easy” children since they have “difficult” and “fearful” children to tend to. The goal is to support and inform individual children and parents, not to judge. 

This article will use the labels adopted by Zero to Three: adaptable, cautious, and feisty (http/www.zerotothree.org/match-care.html) as they are more objective and less likely to lead to judgments. This objectivity encourages adults to look more fully at each child. It is important to remember, however, that all children are individuals with their own unique qualities and needs (Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, 1990). The three temperament categories discussed in this article are where 65-70 percent of children TEND to fit; other children have a mixture of all three temperaments.


A Closer Look at Feisty Nora, Adaptable Sam, and Cautious Rachel

Feisty Nora – “It is never boring when there is a feisty child around.”

Since Nora continues to paint during the “clean-up song,” the teacher goes over and reminds her to clean up because it’s time for lunch. Nora continues painting. The teacher asks her if she would like to put the caps on the paint cups or if she needs help. Nora continues to paint. The teacher tells Nora that because she has not decided, she (the teacher) is going to put the caps on the paint cups. Nora begins to yell. She crosses her arms and stomps her feet. The teacher firmly tells Nora it’s time to clean up and the paint will be available tomorrow. She then gently leads Nora to the sink and helps Nora wash her hands. The teacher then leads Nora over to the table where lunch is being served, but Nora refuses to try the stone soup. She vociferously proclaims, “That’s not the lunch I wanted!” Nora ends up eating half of a banana.


Traits of the Feisty Child: Intense and Passionate

Nora is an example of a feisty child. Feisty children react intensely and negatively and have difficulty adapting to new situations (Gordon and Browne, 1996). They also tend to have irregular daily routines. For example, they don’t naturally get up at the same time each morning or realize when it’s lunchtime. Thus, introducing a new item, which is soup in this case and transitioning from one activity to another are difficult for Nora.

A feisty child’s attention span may seem short, but don’t be fooled. The feisty child can be attentive for long periods of time for activities she chooses and in which she is strongly engaged. She takes in new people and situations intensely and sensory issues, such as smells and noises, are often bothersome. External stimuli, such as a bright light are usually distracting for her, and she is typically passionate and moody, both positively and negatively. One thing can be said about the feisty child: She is not boring to be around! About 10 percent of the children in your classroom will fit into the feisty category (Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, 1990).


Supportive Teaching Methods

The feisty child is one that is noticed, both positively and negatively. The teacher and often the whole school know when this child arrives! When there is a parent day at school, for example, this child will most likely make the loudest and boldest announcement that it’s the day her dad is coming to school. This is NOT a child who wants to do things in one prescribed way. A feisty child is very determined, and when interrupted she will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that she is annoyed.        

Whenever we encounter children of different temperaments, we need to remember to make the program fit the child and not the child fit the program (Fields & Boesser, 1998). Flexibility is particularly important for the feisty child. The feisty child’s intensity leads to definite opinions about what or how they want to explore. Should their opinions be negated? No! We should encourage children to be creative and think independently, and we should think about why an agenda has been set. If it’s done a certain way only because it’s always been done that way, then maybe things ought to change. Giving reasons for the way things are done are helpful for both the child and the adult in avoiding too many arbitrary rules and ensuring that the child understands the necessity of the rules that do exist. Along with reasons, feisty children need preparation for changes in their lives. Preparation, especially for sleeping and eating, is helpful for all children, but it’s especially important to the feisty child since her natural clock is less likely to be set.


Adaptable Sam – “He’s seen, but he’s not heard.”

Sam is playing restaurant in the dramatic play area. As soon as the teacher makes the announcement that in five minutes it will be clean up time, Sam begins to clean up. He does not wait for the “clean-up” song. Sam quickly puts the toys away and goes to the sink to wash his hands for lunch. Sam tries the new lunch and eats everything that is passed to him. When he is done eating, he sits and waits for lunchtime to end. The teacher asks him what he wants to do next and Sam responds with a shrug of his shoulders and says, “I don’t know.”


Traits of the Adaptable Child: Happy and Routinized

Sam is an example of an adaptable child. New situations and routines are easy for adaptable children because their natural inclination is to take change in stride. Adaptable children are typically happy and flexible (Gordon and Browne, 1996). Thus a novelty, such as the soup, is no big deal for Sam. Furthermore, Sam is the most likely of our three children to make transitions easily, try something new, and become “in tune” with the daily routine. He’s also the most likely to naturally know what’s going to happen next on a typical day.           

The adaptable child’s activity level is on the passive end of the continuum. He takes new people and situations in stride, adapting quickly and with a very low intensity. Sensory issues, such as smells and noises, do not bother him much. He’s also easy going, not easily distracted, and will stay on the task at hand. According to the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development (1990), about 40 percent of children fit into the adaptable category.


Supportive Teaching Methods

This child is the one that is most in danger of having his needs overlooked. Characteristically, adaptable children just “go with the flow,” even when something or someone conflicts with their own needs. As a result, teachers need to “check in” with them at regular intervals to make sure their needs are taken care of and that they get enough “warm fuzzies.” Teachers have so many roles to play and it’s the adaptable child who may not be noticed during the “hustle and bustle” of a typical school day. Therefore, it is helpful for the teacher to make sure an adaptable child has a time set aside to communicate and be with the teacher daily.


Cautious Rachel – “She checks it out before she participates.”

Rachel watches three children explore with the new water wheels and funnels at the water table. While the clean-up song plays, the three children run over to the sink to wash their hands. Rachel backs herself into a corner of the room where she observes them. When most of the children are done washing their hands, she goes over to the sink, washes her hands, and approaches the lunch table. Rachel cries when she sees lunch. Through sobs you can hear her saying, “I don’t want to eat a stone.” At the end of the day, one of the teachers tells Rachel’s father about the lunch scenario. He responds by telling the teacher that Rachel talked incessantly about making soup with a stone the previous evening.


Traits of the Cautious Child: Careful and Passive

Rachel is an example of a cautious child. Cautious children react negatively and are slow to adapt to new experiences (Gordon and Browne, 1996). They may even be frightened by new situations. However, they may exhibit their fear in a mild manner. It makes sense that Rachel stands back and watches the children experiment with things that are new such as the funnels and water wheels. New things are difficult for a cautious child. Rachel has something else on her mind. She spent most of her time last night with her family thinking over and talking about what to do about the new soup that had been prepared for the next day. The more changes confronting a cautious child, the more likely she will be inactive. Consequently, Rachel reacts. In this case, she stands back before lunchtime.          

The activity level of a cautious child is on the passive end of the continuum, but she may get fidgety. She is very concerned about new people and situations. She takes time to adapt and may react intensely by withdrawing herself from classmates and activities. Sensory stimuli, such as strong or unfamiliar smells and noises, may bother her. A child with this temperament tends to get distracted by the novel and needs time to feel secure enough to try a task. Her mood will depend on her comfort level. About 15 percent of the children in your classroom fit into this category (Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, 1990).


Supportive Teaching Methods

You can typically count on this child NOT to engage in activities or situations that may be dangerous. For example, this is not the child who tries to walk up the slide, and she would not wander off on a field trip. Also, once a cautious child gets comfortable with her teacher, she feels very connected. She’ll make it clear, through body language (e.g., a flushed face) or cries, when she is not comfortable. A cautious child needs preparation to learn how to cope with new people and experiences, so it is helpful when adults clearly outline the routine and inform her of any changes in the routine. This child should be given time to watch, with “invitations” to join when she feels comfortable.


Appropriate Activities

Temperaments are a child’s predisposition, but they are not his destiny. In fact, it is useful for children with a specific temperament to practice the others, when appropriate. An adaptable child should be given the opportunity to be feisty and request attention. At other times it may be more appropriate for an adaptable child to be cautious, especially when she is exposed to a negative influence. Similarly, a teacher can help a cautious child feel comfortable and adapt with changes or help a feisty child be more adaptable and a little less passionate.           

The goal is for teachers to respect and respond to the personality of each child. So, what would be examples of activities for each of the three temperaments? The feisty child has difficulty following routine and making transitions; we want her to learn how to start and stop. Thus, an activity of dancing, with periodic times for “freezing,” would be a useful exercise to try (http://www.zerotothree.org/Archive/TEMPERAM.HTM). The adaptable child may not always tell the teacher she needs attention, so an activity such as “tell-the-teacher-a-story” might ensure that the child gets the teacher’s attention. The cautious child adjusts slowly to new activities, so a slow cycle of taking the familiar, such as the water table, and making it novel by adding food coloring to the water may provide more security and help the cautious child learn to make changes. 


Be Mindful of Your Own Temperament

Just because someone is born cautious, feisty, or adaptable does not mean that she always wants to feel or act that way. People are born with a predisposition towards a certain temperament, but reactions from others are also influential. Through observation and facilitation, teachers may help each child learn to choose how they want to act and react. Teachers also need to realize that their own temperament influences how they react to children. For example, a teacher who has an adaptable disposition may write off the feisty child as difficult. On the other hand, an adaptable teacher who is knowledgeable of temperament may be just the person to provide the flexibility a feisty child needs. A teacher with a feisty disposition may not notice that the adaptable child is afraid. Or, may write off a cautious child as silly, rather than realizing it is in the child’s make-up to be anxious around new people and situations. The key for teachers is to reflect upon their own temperaments and consider how this might influence their reactions to children.



One temperament is not better than another – each temperament is just different and all of them can be useful in the appropriate situations. In a typical classroom on a typical day (if such a thing exists), each of the different temperaments can come into play. Thus, it is useful for early childhood educators to understand the three main temperaments. As Reynolds (2001) states, “A teacher who understands that children have different temperaments and how these different temperaments are expressed will be a teacher ready to help each individual in the classroom and the group as a whole develop and build understandings. No one would disagree that a child that is understood certainly learns better than one that is misunderstood!”


Amy Sussna Klein, Ed.D., is President of ASK Education Consulting. She can be reached by email at Askeducation@cs.com.



Beaty, J.J. (1999). Prosocial guidance for the preschool child. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill an imprint of Prentice Hall.

Berk, L. (2000). Child development. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. 

Fields, M. V. & Boesser, C. (1998). Constructive guidance and discipline. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill an imprint of Prentice Hall. 

Goldsmith H. H., Buss, A., Plomin, R., Rothbart, M. K., Thomas, A., Chess, S., Hinde, R. A., & McCall, R. B. (1987). Roundtable: What is temperament? Child Development, 58, 505-529. 

Gordon A. & Browne, K.W. (1996). Guiding young children in a diverse society. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. 

Miller, K. (1996). The crisis manual for early childhood teachers. Maryland: Gryphon House, Inc. 

Reynolds, E (2001). Guiding young children. California: Mayfield Publishing Company. 

Thomas, A. & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Brunner/Mazel. 

Zabel, R. & Zabel, M.K. (1999). Classroom management in context. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.  

Zero to Three (2002). Matching your infant or toddler’s style to the right child care setting. http://www.zero-tothree.org/match-care.html. 

Zero to Three (2002). Temperament. http://www.zerotothree.org/Archive/TEMPERAM.HTM.


Video Resource

Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development. (1990). Fearful, flexible and feisty the different temperaments of infants and toddlers. CA: California State Department of Education.