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Accommodating Different Personalities and Temperaments
By Victoria Speaks-Fold, Ed.D.

“He’s just like his father, look how cranky he wakes up in the morning!” “Oh, look how cute, Mary acts just like her mother. She’s eating one food at a time from her plate!” Parents notice idiosyncrasies as soon as their baby is born. They look for familiar movements, gestures, facial expressions, and patterns in their new child’s life. They tend to categorize certain abilities and attribute them to the mother, father, or family members. This can be a positive compilation of attributes or ones that annoy. As parents grow to know their children they accommodate the different characteristics and consider them as part of the child’s personality.

Temperament is an individual’s behavioral style and characteristic way of responding. Developmentalists such as Parker and Barrett (1992) are especially interested in the temperament of infants. Some infants are extremely active, moving their arms, legs and mouth incessantly. Others are tranquil. Some children explore their environment eagerly for great lengths of time. Others do not. Some infants respond warmly to people. Others fuss and fret. All of these behavioral styles represent a person’s temperament. (Goldsmith & Lussier, 1991; Gottfried & Lussier, 1993; Mehegany, 1992)

Key Dimensions of Temperament
Many psychiatrists such as Thomas and Chess (1987,1991), believe there are three basic types, or clusters, of temperament: easy, difficult, and slow to warm up.

  • The Easy Child is generally in a positive mood, quickly establishing regular routines in infancy and adapts easily to new experiences.
  • The Difficult Child tends to react negatively and cry frequently, engaging in irregular daily routines and is slow to accept new experiences.
  • The Slow to Warm Up Child has a low activity level, is somewhat negative, shows low adaptability and displays a low intensity of mood.

Descriptions and the Basic Clusters of Temperament

Temperament Type




Slow to Start

Basic Body Rhythm

Regularity of eating, sleeping, toileting




Activity Level

Degree of energy movement





Ease of approaching new people and situations




Descriptive expressions

Degree of affect when pleased, displeased, happy, sad

Low to moderate



Mood Swings

Degree of positive or negative effect




(Chess and Thomas table)

Children studied in current research (Chess & Thomas, 1987, 1991) found that 40 percent of children fit into the easy child category; 10 percent are considered difficult; and 15 percent are slow to start or warm up child. Other research suggests that temperament is composed of three basic components:


  • Emotionality: the tendency to be distressed. During infancy, distress develops into two separate emotional responses: fear and anger. Fearful infants try to escape something that is unpleasant, angry infants choose to protest. To be labeled easy or difficult is to base the label on their emotionality.
  • Socialibility: the tendency to prefer the company of others rather than be alone.
  • Activity level: this component involves tempo and vigor of movement. Some children walk fast, are attracted to high-energy games and jump or bounce around a lot while others are more placid.

Parents and Children’s Personality Matches
Have you observed that a high-strung parent may tend to have a child who is difficult and sometimes slow to respond to a parent’s affection? One of our responsibilities as we nurture and love the infants in our group care setting is to be sensitive to the parent-child relationship. For example, a father who does not need much face-to-face social interaction will find it easy to manage a similarly introverted baby. He may not be able to provide an extraverted infant with sufficient stimulation until he grows into the expectancies of the father–child relationship. We must supply positive feedback during our conversations and conferences with parents and help them adapt and understand their child’s personality. Over time, parents and children grow into a family and know what to expect from one another. 

How Infants Communicate
A child’s emotions are his language before he acquires speech. Infants will react to adult facial gestures and expressions, and they will respond to familiar voices by turning towards that person. When adults, whether they be parents or caregivers, understand that the infant is communicating through their responses then parents or adults can adjust the response to meet the type of need the infant is expressing such as distress or happiness.

Carroll Izard (1982) provided us with a system to measure infant emotions. The system, called MAX (Maximally Discriminative Facial Movement Coding System), “reads” infant facial expressions in relation to emotions. Examples of activities performed with infants included giving an infant an ice cube, having tape put on the backs of their hands and handing the infant a favorite toy and then taking it away. Other activities included separating the infant from mother and then reuniting them, having a stranger approach the infant, placing a ticking clock next to the infant’s ear, giving the infant lemon rind to sniff, and giving an infant orange juice to taste. To mark the emotional response many gestures were recorded. Anger was recorded if the infant sharply lowered and drew together his eyebrows, when eyes were narrowed and squinted. A list of the emotions Izard identified along with the approximate time an infant shows these emotions is below.

Emotional Expressions

Approximate Time of Emergence

Interest smile, startled response, distress, disgust

All present at birth

Social smile

Between 4-6 weeks

Anger, surprise, sadness

Between 3-4 months


Between 5-7 months


Between 6-8 months

Contempt, guilt

About 2 years of age

For Crying Out Loud
In addition to facial expressions, you can tell a lot about an infant’s personality from the way she cries. A description of the three types of cries follows. 

  • A basic cry is rhythmic in pattern and usually consists of a cry followed by a briefer silence then a shorter whistle that is some what higher pitch than the main cry, then another brief rest before the next cry. Some researchers suggest that hunger is part of the basic cry need.
  • The angry cry is characterized by a cry with more excess air forced through the vocal chords. Parents respond to this type of cry differently than the basic cry. 
  • The pain cry is yet another distinct type. This cry comes without warning. It appears suddenly without preliminary meaning and may be followed with an extended period of breath holding.

These cries are common among all the temperaments and personalities of infants. However infants will adjust the intensity according to their temperament type. As children grow their temperament lays the foundation for future personality development. Young children’s personalities continue to be influenced by the world around them well into their elementary school years, so the early childhood years provide a fertile time for child, parents and supporting adults to establish expectancies based on the child’s individual characteristics and temperament.

Stages of Emotional Development
What does this tell us about the child’s emotional development? An extension of a developing personality is the way a child feels about his or herself. Erik Erikson (1950) provides us with year-to-year understanding of the development of personalities and a sense of self. He chronicles conflicts that manifest themselves at different stages of growth. The conflicts define the personality by the way in which the child, and later, the adult approaches and achieves the passing of each milestone.

The first conflict, and an important one to know when observing children from age’s birth to approximately two years of age is the trust versus mistrust stage of emotional development. As infants mature they become aware of a growing world around them that is less secure than the first loving arms of a parent. Will they attempt new situations? If the infant has a secure attachment in early life he will approach situations with more confidence in himself and his environment. If the early attachment is poorly defined he will feel inadequate or acquire self-doubt when attempting to achieve an expected milestone in growth and development. During this conflict stage people close in the infant’s life form attachments. When attachment occurs the infant feels secure in trusting the adult to always respond to him and provide necessary bonding. The intensity of this attachment occurs with infants and caregivers around the 6-7 months age range.

Attachment Categories
When infants reach the toddler years Erikson identifies another conflict stage. Autonomy versus shame and doubt play an important role in the shaping of a toddler’s personality and emotional development. This is the stage that provides the backdrop for independence to emerge. Another word for autonomy is power. Toddlers possess the power to do many things that they could not do before. One of them is to say “No!” Early childhood educators and parents should pay particular attention to the onset of this stage of development. The environment for a toddler should be full of “yes, yes” activities and opportunities. The toddler needs room to explore his environment.   He wants to control the adult world and is frustrated that he cannot do so. Adults must provide positive alternatives when a toddler frustrates with the world around him. Offering distractions and substitutions provide the toddler with appropriate ways to handle the situation.

The emerging toddler is growing in his motor and mental abilities. He is walking, climbing, dropping, pushing, pulling, opening and closing and letting go. Parents and adults must recognize the motivation behind the toddler’s wish to do everything himself. By providing safe opportunities to accomplish these abilities toddlers will learn to control their muscles and their impulses themselves.

If we are impatient or try to do for toddlers, they will begin to doubt their ability and feel ashamed of their shortcomings. If we provide meaningful opportunities for toddlers at this stage of development to accomplish what they can for themselves we have laid the foundation for adolescent years. Being able to be independent individuals who can choose and guide their own future are important attributes for the growing personality.

Accommodating Guidelines
Let’s learn some accommodating guidelines when working with different ages of children in the early years.

0-1 years of age:

  • In the trust vs. mistrust stage of emotional development so we must provide a consistent, loving, nurturing environment 
  • The child is seeking ways to model behaviors so we must provide appropriate guidance in our voice, our words, our actions and gestures. 
  • The child is reflecting approval from the adults in his world so we must provide gentle gestures, words of encouragement, quiet responses, eye contact and loving arms. 
  • The child is responding to the levels of attentiveness provided so we must make sure we hold the infants close, sing, hum and provide loving words often.

1-2 years of age:  

  • The child is learning about differences in his world as he transitions into the stage of autonomy vs. shame and doubt so we must provide an environment that is safe from hazards, supervised at all times and accepting of his attempts to control his world. 
  • The child is obtaining new abilities in both motor and mental development so we must provide challenges that will allow for these growths to occur.

If we understand the expectancies of young children we can successfully provide an appropriate environment that will encourage the flourishing of balanced personalities, even temperaments and growing curiosity. We all have responsibilities in “growing” young children. As parents and early care professionals we have an opportunity to be part of a young child’s positive vision of the world, of others and of self. Let’s do so by understanding and accepting children’s personalities and temperaments as part of the unique qualities that make up every person. The early childhood years are growing years that form the foundation for later learning.

Chess, S. & Thomas A. (1987). Temperamental individuality from childhood to adolescence. Journal of Child Psychiatry, 16, 218-26.

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton.

Goldsmith, J.J., Rothbart, M. K., Crowley, J.M., Harmon-Losova, S.G. &Bowden, L. M. (1991, April). Behavioral assessment of early temperament in the laboratory. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Seattle.

Gottfried, A.W. & Lussier, C.M. (1993, March). Continuity, stability, and change in temperament: A 10-year longitudinal investigation from infancy through adolescence. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Child Development, New Orleans.

Izard, C.E. (1982). Measuring emotions in infants and young children. New York: Cambridge Press. University