Temperament in the classroom: Helping each child find a good fit
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By Barbara Keogh, Ph.D.
Working with your child's teacher
Awareness of individual differences in children's temperaments is important for teachers in managing a classroom. Talk with the teacher about your child's temperament. Acknowledge honestly that that he is shy and slow to warm up, or is high-energy and intense and tends to overreact. Talk about how your child gets along in the family and what responses to his behavior have worked effectively. Make clear to the teacher that you are ready and willing to work with your child at home. Be involved in a cooperative way.
Both parents and teachers often mistakenly attribute a child's behavior to his motivation, and are understandably upset and angry when they see misbehavior as purposeful or as something that the child could change if "he would only try harder." When adults recognize that behavior reflects individual differences in temperament, not motivation, it helps them reframe the behavior, think about the fit between the child and the situation, and make necessary adjustments. For example, to avoid problems, high-energy children may need frequent opportunities for acceptable activity breaks such as running errands for the teacher or cleaning the blackboard. Intense children may need a reminder to talk in a normal voice rather than shout, or to count to ten before reacting to another child. Slow-to-warm-up children may need time and help when starting a new assignment, and may need reminders when there will be changes in the daily schedule.
Awareness of individual differences in temperament leads to more careful consideration of the context or situation in which the misbehavior occur. Ask the teacher for her views of the problems, and ask her to identify what time of day problems occur, in what situations, for example during math lessons, on the playground, or in the cafeteria. Encourage the teacher to be specific in describing the problem behavior. Share the experiences you have with your child at home. The more objectively the behavior is described the more information is available to help your child get along in school.
When parents and teachers reframe their understanding of a child's behavior, it also provides a way to figure out how to respond to the behavior. For teachers this may mean changing the way the classroom is organized, modifying the instructional schedule and time, providing more activity breaks, and developing a daily routine that is familiar and consistent, yet allows for individual needs. For parents it may mean adjusting the daily routines of family life to ensure that your child is rested and ready for school; providing a quiet, regular space and time for your child to do school work; being available to help with school work; and helping your child to understand himself. Providing an environment that facilitates learning is important for every child, but is especially important for difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament children.
Teachers often appreciate learning about what temperament is, and how to work with these individual differences in their classrooms. A common response is: "I just never thought of looking at a child's behavior that way." For both parents and teachers, understanding temperament provides a framework that can support each child's success in school.