What is Temperament?

According to temperament experts1 “parents often do not become believers in temperament until after the birth of their second child.” On the other hand, teachers, by virtue of their exposure to so many children, readily acknowledge the wide range of temperamental differences in the children in their classrooms. Indeed, children differ in the ways that they approach learning, follow directions, are interested in and attend to class activities, engage with peers, and interact with teachers.  These differences are often rooted in temperament, defined as biologically based individual differences in thinking, feeling, and behaving in the environment. There are multiple temperament traits; some that are particularly relevant to children’s classroom experiences are shyness, activity, persistence, attention, and anger. Although children’s behavior changes with development (for example, a shy toddler may hide behind her mother’s legs but a shy teenager is more likely to speak quietly when meeting a new person), temperamental traits remain threaded throughout. Thus, a shy toddler is unlikely to grow up to become the life of the party or crave the spotlight, and a persistent preschooler will probably take a firm stand and be difficult to influence (for good or otherwise) as a high school student. Indeed, temperament provides the foundation for later personality, which extends to values, morals, beliefs and social cognition.

When we consider children’s temperament as it unfolds in the classroom (or at home), it is important to keep in mind that there is no “good” or “bad” temperament; rather, it is the way the child’s temperament fits with the environment that results in positive or negative outcomes. Some temperament traits, such as attention, help children learn quickly; some traits, like activity, may strain a child’s ability to sit still in the classroom; others, such as shyness and anger, make social interactions a bit more difficult. However, in all of these cases, there are methods teachers and parents can employ to provide a better fit for the child’s temperament. This requires sensitivity and responsiveness, but it also calls for awareness on the part of teachers and parents to recognize a child’s natural tendencies and identify a path to success. For example, a child with a high need for activity may benefit from opportunities to move around in the classroom, such as helping to pass out materials. Or parents could give the child time for exercise before or after school to offset the sedentary nature of most classrooms. A shy child may feel distress at the prospect of giving an oral report or participating in a school assembly. An attuned teacher could scaffold this process, providing lots of opportunities for practice with a small group or a peer.

Parents can advocate for their children to the school and teachers. Because parents know their children’s temperament better than anyone else, it is their insight that can be critically important as administrators make decisions regarding classroom assignments, and as teachers deal with children’s behavior in the classroom. Teacher awareness is key to successfully establishing optimal fit between a child’s temperament and his or her classroom environment.

1 Sanson, A., Putnam, S., & Rothbart, M. K. (2002). Child temperament and parenting. In Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 1: Children and Parenting. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 255-277.