Temperament: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
“We’ve spent a lot of time working with a speech language therapist and our parent-infant specialist to help our son develop spoken language. We were so excited when he learned his first words that we wanted to show our family our son’s great accomplishments. To our great disappointment, when we ask him to talk he withdraws and is hesitant to communicate with others. As his mother, I enjoy being around a lot of people, but I’m wondering if my outgoing personality may not feel comfortable to my son.” - Mother of child with cochlear implants
This is an all too common story of an outgoing parent who has a child who tends to withdraw when introduced to new social settings.
Understanding each child’s and parent’s temperament is an important part of designing communication sessions and incorporating learning experiences into daily routines. Taking on a temperament perspective can help parents, clinicians, and educators become aware of individual differences, understand how temperament may be related to behaviors, and develop strategies to increase the
goodness of fit between the child and their environment. It is important for caregivers and educators to understand that there are no “good” or “bad” temperament traits only unique ways in which we express ourselves or respond to the world.
Temperament is defined as “the constellation of inborn traits that determine a child’s unique behavioral style and the way he or she experiences and reacts to the world” (Kristal, 2005, p. 8). Extensive research has been conducted on this topic. One landmark study conducted by Thomas, Chess, and Birch (1956) followed individuals from infancy to adulthood. Data collected from this study led Thomas and colleagues to identify the following nine temperament characteristics to describe a child’s behavioral style:
Sensory threshold describes level of stimulation needed to evoke a response from the child;
Activity level describes level of child’s motor activity;
Intensity is the level of reactive energy of a response, the child’s level of expressiveness of happiness, sadness, anger;
Rhythmicity is the degree of the child’s predictability of bodily functions such as appetite, sleep/wake cycles, elimination patterns;
Adaptability describes how easily a child adapts to changes or transitions;
Mood is the quality of a child’s disposition such as happy, sad, serious, cranky;
Approach/withdrawal is the child’s initial response to new places, situations, or people;
Persistence describes the child’s ability to stick with an activity when difficulties arise; and
Distractibility is the ease by which the child demonstrates a level of concentration or focus.
(Kristal, 2005, p.15).
Exploring the child’s temperament in relation to the caregiver’s temperament or the educator’s temperament may provide valuable information about how the child is responding to the environment around them. For example, if a child tends to takes his or her time when changing from one activity to the next and the educator quickly changes activities without giving the child notice, the child may demonstrate resistance to the new activity. However, if given sufficient notice the child may transition to new activities happily. Taking on a temperament perspective facilitates joint understanding of how to best approach the emotional, social, and learning needs of the child. Temperament conversations also can give direction for selecting intervention approaches or offer parents different perspectives on their child’s ability. The following video clip demonstrates a mother’s positive strategy for addressing her child’s withdrawal from social situations.
Kagan, J. (2010).
The temperament thread: How genes, culture, time, and luck make us who we are. New York, NY: The Dana Foundation.
Kristal, J. (2005).
The temperament perspective: Working with children’s behavior styles. New York, NY: Brookes Publishing Co.
Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1986). The New York Longitudinal Study: From infancy to early adulthood. In R. Plomin & J. Dunn (Eds.),
The study of temperament: Changes, continuities and challenges. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.