How to Understand Child's Temperament?

The behavioral style of every individual varies and it can be noticed during the early childhood itself. Such individualistic behavioural style is customarily referred to as temperament. Individual differences, which are thought to be focused on the "how" rather than the "what" or "why" of behavior, are commonly regarded to be biologically based, largely stable across contexts and time, and impacted in their expression by environmental influences.

Furthermore, human temperament has been discussed since Hippocrates (460 BCE), who believed temperament was influenced by the preponderance of four body humor: yellow bile, blood, black bile, and phlegm. The work of child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas and the New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS) has influenced more recent ideas of early temperament.

Dimensions and Patterns of Temperament

Thomas and Chess began researching temperament in the 1950s in reaction to the prevalent social environment, which emphasized parents as essential contributors to childhood behavioral issues. This multi-decade longitudinal research has yielded much information about the nature of juvenile temperament and the relationships between temperament and adjustment across time.

In their early work, Thomas and Chess developed behavioral parameters that may be seen as early as 2-3 months of life and were thought to distinguish between "Difficult," "Easy," and "Slow-to-Warm-Up" temperament types. Difficult children were defined as having inconsistent eating, sleeping, and elimination cycles (poor rhythmicity), withdrawing in reaction to new/novel settings, sluggish adaptation to new conditions, negative mood, and high-intensity emotional responses.

Easy children were defined as having more predictable biological functions, being more open to trying new things, being quicker to adjust, having a pleasant attitude, and displaying lower-intensity emotional responses. Slow-to-warm-up youngsters were identified as having a lower activity level, a propensity to withdraw from unfamiliar settings, a delayed ability to adjust, and, while occasionally expressing a lousy mood, less powerful emotional reactions. It should be noted that Thomas and Chess also defined additional temperament aspects like distractibility, attention span/persistence, and response threshold.

However, these have gotten less attention than those associated with Easy, Slow-to-Warm-Up, and Difficult temperaments. Of the 141 youngsters in their original sample, 10% were categorized as "Difficult," 30% as "Easy," and 15% as "Slow-to-Warm Up," with the remainder not clearly defined.

Despite the popularity of Thomas and Chess' contribution to modern-day temperament conceptualizations, various alternative dimensions and constellations of temperament traits have also been proposed. After analyzing the substantial studies in this field, Bates (1989) identified seven as having enough evidence. These included Negative emotionality (distress, fear, and anger), Difficultness, which overlaps with negative emotionality and includes −

  • Several NYLS dimensions (e.g., negative mood, withdrawal, low adaptability, high intensity, and low rhythmicity);

  • Adaptability (defined in terms of positive/adverse reactions to new stimuli);

  • Reactivity (response to varying intensities of stimuli);

  • Activity (frequency and intensity of motor activity);

  • Attention regulation (which incorporates the concepts of distractibility and task persistence); and

  • Sociability/Positive-emotionality (enjoying interpersonal interactions and expressing positive emotions).

Theoretical Framework

It can be understood through the following two models −

Transactional Model

The Transactional Model emphasises the bidirectional nature of interactions between people and their surroundings. The assumption at the heart of this approach is that neither the individual nor the environment can account for individual outcomes. Instead, the interaction between the individual and the environment—the transactions between them—determines outcomes, with each's characteristics impacting the other.

In other words, the developing individual is the consequence of interactions between the individual's genetic makeup and environmental factors. A person's genetic makeup determines the methods by which the environment impacts growth. In contrast, how the environment influences genetics guide development. Thus, development is best understood when transactions between kids and surroundings are considered and how these contribute to critical child outcomes, such as the quality of the teacher-child connection.

Ecological and Dynamic Transition Model

The Ecological and Dynamic Transition Model places aspects of the Transactional Model during the transition to school, which roughly corresponds to ages 4-7. According to this paradigm, children's effective school transitions are multi-determined and result from a mix of child and environmental features. Furthermore, this paradigm states that interactions between kids and contexts are bidirectional and constantly changing, with consequences for developmental connections.

Teachers, in particular, impact children, and children, in turn, affect teacher attitudes. Over time, participants establish expectations and behave in line with those expectations, reifying their beliefs about each other in natural behaviours and interactions. It is evident from that paradigm that connections themselves are essential outcomes to investigate when researching children in their early years of school.

Biological Aspects of Temperament

Individual variances in temperament may be noticed early in life before the infant is subjected to significant socialization. Hence it is usually considered that temperament is biological in origin. Indeed, twin, family, and adoption study all point to a hereditary component of individual temperament variances. Recent neuroscience research reveals linkages between brain architecture and the display of certain temperament traits. Approach and avoidance behaviors, in particular, are connected to relationships between cortical and limbic/brain stem areas.

Despite suggestions that temperament has a constitutional origin, it has also been demonstrated that changes in temperament characteristics over time are related to parental characteristics, implying that social experience may also influence how various aspects of temperament are expressed.

Stability of Temperament

Studies on the stability of child temperament over time have generally found correlations ranging from 0.25 to 0.82, which vary depending on age, gender, temperament dimensions assessed, temperament measurement method, length of time between assessments, significant life events occurring between assessments, and sample characteristics. Prior (992) observes that temperament clusters (e.g., complex/easy) are more stable over time than single dimensions and that stability rises when temperament evaluations are severe rather than intermediate.

Factors Influencing the Expression of Temperament

When examining a child's temperament manifestation, gender, socioeconomic position (SES), and culture/ethnicity must be considered. Infancy temperament does not appear to differ much by gender. Early sex differences are observed in toddlers and develop with age, particularly regarding activity level and negative emotionality, with males showing higher levels than girls. Societal forces may also play a role here, as certain behaviors may be tolerated more readily in guys than in girls.

According to studies, a disproportionate percentage of children with challenging temperaments come from low-income homes, while the particular causes for these findings are unknown. The necessity of considering cultural elements is further underscored by research indicating that people from diverse cultural backgrounds typically answer differently to temperament surveys, resulting in distinct child temperament profiles. Prior (992) states that various cultures may place different values on identical temperament types.

Clinical Interventions

According to Sanson and Rothbart (1995), parents must be sensitive and adaptable in their interactions with their children and adjust their parenting approaches to their child's temperament. This may be especially crucial during infancy when children's skills to control and alter their reactions are restricted. Parenting training programs have been established in recent years to assist parents in dealing with problematic kid temperament. Sheeber and McDevitt (1998) summarize these programs' historical and philosophical foundations, interventions, research findings, limits, and future objectives.


Temperament is an individual variance in a behavioral style that can be noticed as early as infancy and childhood. It has been discussed since Hippocrates and influenced by the work of child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas and the New York Longitudinal Study. Temperament is biologically in origin and has a hereditary component. The stability of temperament over time varies depending on age, gender, dimensions assessed, measurement method, length of time between assessments, significant life events, and sample characteristics.

The relationship between temperament measures and bad outcomes is weak in infancy but strengthens with maturity. Goodness-of-fit refers to the fit between a child's temperament and the environment. Specific characteristics of the parent/caregiver-child interaction can moderate the association between child temperament and later psychological/behavioral issues.

Updated on: 10-May-2023


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