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The Temperment Trap: Recognizing and Accomodating Children's Personalities
By Susan Culpepper

Early childhood professionals have individual preferences about how they like children to behave (Eddowes, Aldridge, & Culpepper, 1994). Early childhood professionals also play a critical role in helping children accept themselves as unique (Aldridge, 1993). While students preparing to work with young children learn about cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, they often neglect to study personality development (Aldridge & Cowles, 1990). The study of personality is important because a child’s temperament influences the teacher more than the child’s intelligence (Lerner & Lerner, 1986). In fact, teachers often give grades and implement classroom management strategies based upon specific children’s temperaments (Pullis & Cadwell, 1982).


What Is Temperament?

Temperament is the part of the personality with which each child is born. According to Chess and Thomas (1987) temperament refers to individual differences in physiological responsiveness. It includes the characteristic way that an individual responds emotionally to people and objects. Thomas and Chess (1977) found nine temperament categories, which they believed were present at birth. These categories include the following:


1.  Activity Level. Does the child display mostly active or inactive stress?


2.  Rhythmicity or Regularity. Is the child predictable or unpredictable regarding sleeping, eating, and elimination patterns?


 3.  Approach-Withdrawal. Does the child react or respond positively or negatively to a newly encountered situation?


4.  Adaptability. Does the child adjust to unfamiliar circumstances easily or with difficulty?


 5.  Responsiveness. Does it take a small  or large amount of stimulation to elicit a response (e.g., laughter, fear,  pain) from the child?


6.  Reaction Intensity. Does the child show low or high energy when reacting to stimuli?


7.  Mood Quality. Is the child normally happy and pleasant, or unhappy and unpleasant?


 8.  Distractibility. Is the child’s attention easily diverted from a task by external stimuli?


9.   Persistence and Attention Span. Persistence – How long will the child continue at an activity despite difficulty or interruptions? Attention span – For how long a period of time can the child maintain interest in an activity?


Easy, Difficult, and Slow-to-Warm-Up

The nine temperaments suggested by Thomas and Chess (1977) have been grouped into three basic classifications of children: easy children, difficult children, and slow-to-warm-up children.


Easy children usually have positive moods and approaches to new situations. They adapt quite well to change. Easy children are somewhat predictable in their sleeping, eating, and elimination patterns.

Difficult children tend to have irregular sleeping, eating, and elimination patterns. They often experience negative moods and withdraw from things which are new. Difficult children are slow or non-adaptive to change.


Slow-to-warm-up children may react to new situations in a negative but mild manner. They are low in activity levels and tend to withdraw in new situations. These children are more likely to warm up when approached in a way which respects their temperament traits.


While environment influences temperament, the original research on temperaments traits in children focused primarily on inborn tendencies (Bronfenbrenner, 1977). Today, environmental factors are considered as important to a child’s temperament development as inborn tendencies. For example, children with difficult temperaments may actually come from difficult home environments. These children may be helped if their temperaments are valued and their personalities supported. By creating classroom environments that complement children’s temperaments, early childhood professionals can help children develop and reach their full potential.


What Is Goodness of Fit?

Goodness of fit is simply defined as the compatibility between environment and a child’s temperament (Thomas & Chess, 1977). Poorness of fit occurs when temperament is not respected and accommodated. Children are more likely to reach their potential when there is goodness of fit – for example, when teachers provide active learning center experiences rather than total seat work for children with high activity levels (Cowles & Aldridge, 1992; Eddowes & Aldridge, 1990).


While a child’s temperament is affected by the teacher and the classroom setting, the teacher is also affected by the child’s temperament. Teachers spend more time with easy children because they are pleasant and positive. Teachers also spend more time with difficult children to prevent inappropriate behavior. Thus, slow-to-warm-up children may “slip between the cracks” (Keogh, 1986). Children who are slow to warm up would benefit more than easy children from teachers’ time and attention. Unfortunately, they  are often overlooked. In addition to the interaction between teachers and children, goodness of fit also includes the relationship between students and learning (Keogh, 1986).


Accommodating Different Temperaments

Early childhood professionals can do many things to value children’s different personalities. The following eight strategies will help early childhood professionals be more conscious and accepting of personality and temperament differences.


1.  Observe Children’s Behavior. Write down children’s likes and dislikes.  Notice when children do not readily adjust to a new situation. The information from your observations  and anecdotal records will help you plan future activities, experiences, and classroom arrangements.


Nancy’s Experience

Jamie, a four-year-old, had been in school for eight days. On Monday the petting zoo traveled to her class. Jamie was terrified of the boa constrictor and displayed his fright by screaming and clinging to Nancy, his teacher. In contrast, Lisa, another four-year-old, was the first volunteer to touch the boa. Jamie and Lisa have different temperament characteristics, particularly those of reaction intensity and adaptability.


Nancy carefully observed Jamie and Lisa to determine whether their behaviors were responses to the reptile or if they were generalized across other situations. Nancy spoke with Jamie, Lisa, and all of the other children in her class, and told them that she understood how they felt and that they each were unique.


2.  Consider Classroom Arrangement. Classrooms should be arranged and modified based on the different temperaments of the children who reside there (Eddowes & Aldridge,  1990). Appropriate classroom arrangement should be based on careful observation of the children. Arrangements should accommodate the personality variations of the children.


Linda’s Experience

Linda, an early childhood teacher, had several children in her class who were easily distracted. She rearranged the room to create more one- to two-child spaces at activity centers so that when children were working at them they would have their backs to the door or window. These minor changes helped the distractible children focus more



3.   Provide a Variety of Activities. The more you use closed-ended activities, the less you value children’s differences. For every classroom activity, plan alternatives and choices if at all possible. For instance, children who are slow to warm up may not want to share during circle time. Provide alternate methods of sharing, including writing or drawing in a journal, and simply sharing with a friend of smaller group.


Tanya’s Experience

Tanya’s students displayed a wide range of activity levels and attention spans. Tanya worked hard to provide projects and center activities, which could be accomplished with varying amounts of persistence and activity. In the puzzle area, for example, Tanya placed puzzles of different degrees of complexity. She also planned some projects, which could be completed within one activity time, and other more in-depth projects, which took periods of several days to complete.


4.  Investigate Non-School-Related Influences. A child who occasionally acts difficult may not have a difficult temperament. Often a child’s behavior is caused by stress from other environments. The behavior may be situationally induced. Discussions with the child’s parents or other caregivers may identify the root of difficult behavior.


Whitney’s Experience

For the first week of school, Yolanda always smiled. She was a leader of her peers, and a polite, helpful student. During the second week of school, however, Yolanda hit Paul on the head with a block, and knocked Kristy down on the playground. Yolanda also required help in choosing an activity each time a choice was offered.


Whitney, Yolanda’s teacher, talked with Yolanda casually in an attempt to determine a cause for her behavior change, but could discern none. Whitney then called Yolanda’s parents and found out that Yolanda’s father had lost his job on Friday of the first week of school. Yolanda had apparently related to her family’s trouble by acting in ways not usual for her temperament. Whitney decided that it was best to avoid making judgments about children’s temperaments until she had seen consistent behavior over a period of time.


 5. Assess Your Own Temperament.  Consider your own temperament traits and the traits you prefer in children. Identify your preferences by making a list of children’s behaviors which trouble you and which you enjoy. Be aware of your own vulnerabilities when interacting with children.


Ginny’s Experience

Ginny was a teacher of four-year-olds in a child care program. Ginny’s temperament qualities included high persistence, low activity, and regularity of patterns. Although she was generally pleasant in mood and easily adapted to new situations, Ginny became aware that certain traits in children irritated or upset her.


Children who were eager and active sometimes caught Ginny off guard. They would approach her with an “I’m ready to do something new” attitude before Ginny was ready to present a new activity. Ginny learned to say, “I am glad that you have enjoyed the center which we have today. Let’s see if there is a different way to work at the center which is out right now.”


Ginny also found that she was different from children who had an apathetic approach to people and activities in the class. For instance, Juan quietly flitted from one part of the room to another and appeared unable to find an activity which interested him for any period of time. Ginny’s challenge was to avoid feeling that Juan was wrong for the way he behaved just because he behaved differently. Ginny tried to help Juan find the subject or approach which interested him most and gave Juan ample opportunities to enjoy things the way he liked them.


6.  Evaluate Your Curriculum and Teaching Methods. Sometimes what we teach and how we teach are not flexible enough to accommodate all of the temperaments with whic we work. Evaluate your curriculum and teaching methods or, better yet, have a coworker evaluate them for you.


Karen’s Experience

Karen, an early childhood teacher, and Scott, another teacher, decided to study children’s temperaments in the classroom. Karen asked Scott to observe her children, classroom arrangement, and teaching methods, and jot down comments. Scott observed Karen in her classroom and made several observations including that Karen preferred children with easy temperaments and avoided children with difficult temperaments. This observation helped Karen to monitor her own behavior and spend more time with certain children.


7.  Choose Appropriate Guidance Techniques. A guidance technique that works for one child may not work with another. Guidance techniques often do not take temperament differences into account. Careful observation and anecdotal record-keeping can help you guide young children’s behavior.


Carlos’s Experience

Carlos, a preschool teacher, had always been aware that children react differently to guidance strategies. Carlos could see how five-year-old Mason’s easy adaptability and low reaction intensity caused him to be almost blindly obedient. A slightly disapproving look from Carlos made Mason adjust his behavior. With other children in his class, Carlos had to spend more time and use different techniques.


8.   Share Information With Parents.  A parent is the child’s first teacher.  Parents can tell teachers much about their child’s temperament. Sometimes a parent’s description of his or her child is different from how the teacher perceives the child. A parent/child/teacher partnership can help make transitions between home and school easier and less stressful for everyone.


Steve’s Experience

Steve had noticed how quiet and reluctant Kita was at school. Steve spoke with Kita’s father about her behavior. Kita’s father was very surprised and described Kita as the oldest of three children and as talkative and sometimes overbearing. Steve told Kita’s dad that Kita was one of the youngest children in the class and that she might be intimidated because she is not accustomed to dealing with older peers.



Temperament and goodness of fit are important concepts for early childhood professionals to learn and use in daily interactions with children. Healthy social and personality development occurs in young children when there is compatibility between the child and the demands and expectations of the teacher and center environment. A teacher’s understanding and respect for children’s temperaments are vital if her students are to thrive and develop.



Susan Culpepper, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. Jerry Aldridge, Ed.D., is a professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Joyce Sibley, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of human studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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