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Temperament in the classroom: Helping each child find a good fit

Learn from an expert how your child's temperament affects his adjustment and achievement at school.

By Barbara Keogh, Ph.D.

It is the first week of school for third-graders Timmy, Kevin, and Andrew. All three boys are bright and good learners, yet they are startlingly different in their personal styles or temperaments:

  • Timmy is an outgoing, friendly child who gets along well with adults and other children. He loves new experiences, adapts well to classroom routines, and is rarely upset or angry; he can hardly wait to get started in his new classroom.
  • Kevin is quiet and shy and needs time to feel comfortable when faced with new people, new places, and new experiences. The first days of school are uncomfortable, even scary for him. He is reluctant to start the new school year in a new classroom.
  • Andrew is highly active, quick reacting, and intense. He has difficulty sitting still and paying attention in school and he often overreacts to his teachers and classmates. He remembers the stresses of the last school year and wishes he could just stay home.

These differences in temperament will contribute to the boys' adjustment and achievement in their new classroom, in some cases making for a happy and successful year, in others adding stress and problems.

What is temperament?

Temperament describes individual styles or the "how" of behavior. These personal characteristics can be seen when children are playing with friends, doing their math assignment, or watching television. We all recognize children who are always on the go, as compared to others who move at a slow and deliberate pace. We also know children who are overly intense, who have a short fuse, and who are easily irritated and upset. Still other children are shy, uneasy in new situations and with new people. These individual differences in temperament are:

  • biologically based
  • apparent early in life
  • characteristic of individuals over time and in different situations

As discussed in the first article in this series, differences in temperament affect how children get along with their families at home. They also affect how they get along in school. It is especially important to recognize individual differences in temperament when a child has learning or attention problems, because parents and teachers need to figure out the reasons for a child's behavior.

The Thomas and Chess dimensions of temperament

Psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (1977) identified nine dimensions of temperament that contribute to the interactions between children and their parents. Eight of these dimensions are directly relevant to the interactions between students and teachers and contribute to students' adjustment in school. The eight dimensions are:

  • Sensory threshold
  • Activity level
  • Intensity
  • Adaptability
  • Mood
  • Approach/withdrawal
  • Persistence
  • Distractibility

Timmy, Kevin, and Andrew are examples of temperament types Thomas and Chess described as "easy," "slow to warm up," and "difficult." In temperament terms:

  • Easy children, like Timmy, are adaptable, positive in mood, and interested in new experiences; they get along well with others and are outgoing and friendly.
  • Slow-to-warm-up children, like Kevin, are characteristically withdrawn and negative when faced with new situations and new people; they are initially slow to adapt to change but, given time they adapt well.
  • Difficult children, like Andrew, tend to be intense, low in adaptability, and negative in mood, as well as negative in their response to newness.