Temperament

Temperament describes the way a person approaches and reacts to the world. It influences our behavior and the way we interact with others. It is fixed at birth and driven by both nature(genetic or inherited make-up) and nurture (the influences of the physical and social environment). While temperament does not define or predict behavior clearly it can help you understand how children react and relate to the world around them.

To define types of temperament, researchers looked at a child’s activity level, adaptability to routines, responses to new situations, intensity of reactions, sensitivity to the environment, adaptability to change, and distractibility and persistence when doing an activity. They defined the following three types of temperament – each of which is equally acceptable.

  • Easy or flexible children tend to be happy, regular in sleeping and eating habits, adaptable, calm, and not easily upset.
  • Active or feisty children may be fussy, have irregular feeding and sleeping patterns, be fearful of new people or situations, get easily upset by noise and simulation, and have intense reactions.
  • Slow-to-warm or cautious children tend to be less active or fussy and may withdraw or react negatively to new situations. But, over, time, they may become more positive with repeated exposure to a new person, object, or situation (Allard and Hunter 2010).

Early childhood educators and families need to accept a child’s temperament, while gently encouraging the child to “step out of his comfort zone.” Although temperament is fixed, an individual’s behavior need not be controlled by temperament. A child or adult who is cautious, as described below, can learn to be open to meeting new people or trying out new situations.

It’s also important for educators and families to view all temperaments as equally worthy and appropriate. The child who is typically calm and easygoing is not “better” than the child who is easily upset by loud noises. Both children were born this way and both children need support to develop emotionally and in other domains.

Being aware of a child’s temperament can increase your understanding of her unique characteristics and how she is likely to react to the people and events in her life. It is not helpful, however, to use it as a label or as a way to definitively predict future behavior. Instead, this information can help early childhood educators provide individualized, supportive interactions. For example, if you know that Jimmy is easily distracted by noise and activity, provide a nook or corner where he can read or work alone. Similarly, if Susie is cautious about entering groups, teach her what she can say or make joining others at play easier: “Can I build with you?” or “This is y favorite puzzle. Would you like to do it with me?” Model how to enter a social situation, such as during dramatic play: “Susie and I would like to join you for tea today. What are you serving?”

These suggestions, adapted from the Center of the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) (Allard and Hunter 2010), can help you individualize support based on types of temperament.

For a child with an easy or flexible temperament:

  • Check in regularly and pose questions focused on her feelings. These children are less likely to seek attention or express needs or distress.
  • Help the child notice and understand his emotions, feelings, and reactions. You can help by recognizing her feelings and letting her know that it’s okay to have such feelings.
  • Let the child know she should feel free to ask for help and to tell others how she feels. Give her the words she needs to express herself to others.

For a child with an active or feisty temperament:

  • Expect that you will need to be extra flexible and patient when interacting with this child.
  • Anticipate that he will have strong emotions and strong responses.
  • Offer choices and opportunities for active, gross motor to play so the child can expend energy.
  • Provide a peaceful setting for these children to calm themselves and prepare for naptime.
  • Give individual reminders before transitions by getting down to the child’s level. Ask him to repeat what you said to make sure he understands what will happen next.
  • Label a child’s strong emotions and describe what the child seems to be feeling. “You are very angry. You wanted to play with the fire truck.” Stay calm and reassuring. Once he is calm, discuss how he can learn to recognize his own emotions on his own.

For a child with a slow to warm or cautious temperament:

  • Prepare the child for changes in the setting or in the people who spend time there. Talk about this well before the change will take place and repeat the discussion often. If possible, show the child a photograph of the new person.
  • Ensure predictability in routines, schedules, environments, and activities, to the extent this is possible in your setting.
  • Anticipate the times of the day and situations in which the child will need extra support – and provide it. Scaffold the support provided, so the child can begin to see that she is increasingly independent. “I’m standing right next to the ladder. If you need me to hold your hand you can just ask me. I know you will make it to the top when you are ready.”

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