Understanding Temperament in Infants and Toddlers

Twenty-month-old Laura just begancare in Ms. Neil’s family child care home. Ms. Neil is having difficulty integrating Laura into her program. Laura’s schedule is unpredictable—she becomes tired or hungry at different times each day—and she always seems to want to run, climb, and jumpon everything. Laura also gets extremely upset whenit is time to transition from outdoor play to lunch, orwhen Ms. Neil interrupts an activity in which Laurais engaged. It is not uncommon for her to tantrumfor 10 minutes or more at these times. Ms. Neil has had many years of experience working with youngchildren, and attributes Laura’s lack of a consistent schedule to her recent enrollment and need to getused to the program. She is also struggling with thefact that her favorite activities—quiet games, bookreading, and sensory experiences—are ones thatLaura doesn’t seem to enjoy. After several weeks of observing little change in Laura’s behaviors, Ms. Neil is frustrated. Laura’s unpredictable napping and feeding times, as well as her constant needfor physical activity and intense reactions duringtransitions, are making responsive care for all theother children difficult. Ms. Neil meets with Laura’s family, and learns that Laura’s parents haven’t had difficulty with the issues she describes. When sheasks specifically about her schedule, her parentsdescribe Laura as being a good eater and sleeper, but do report that she doesn’t have a consistent schedulefor eating or napping. They also share that Laura’s need for active physical play is typically not an issuebecause they have a large backyard and Laura hasseveral older siblings who often include her in theiractive play. Still, all of the adults are concerned about Laura’s success transitioning into Ms. Neil’s program, and want to find a way to help her. 

What Is Temperament? 

A child’s temperament describes the way in which she approaches and reacts to the world. It is her personal“style.” Temperament influences a child’s behavior and the way she interacts with others . While temperament does not clearly define or predict behavior, understanding a child’s temperament can help providers and families better understand how young children react and relate tothe world around them. Information about temperamentcan also guide parents and caregivers to identifychildren’s strengths and the supports they need to succeed in their relationships and environments. 

Researchers have described young children’s temperament by depicting several different traits. These traits address an infant’s level of activity, her adaptability to daily routines, how she responds to new situations,her mood, the intensity of her reactions, her sensitivityto what’s going on around her, how quickly she adapts to changes, and how distractible and persistent she mightbe when engaging in an activity . Based on these traits,researchers generally categorize children into three temperament types:

Easy or flexible children tend to be happy, regular in sleeping and eating habits, adaptable, calm, and noteasily upset. 

Active or feisty children may be fussy, irregular in feeding and sleeping habits, fearful of new peopleand situations, easily upset by noise and stimulation,and intense in their reactions.

Slow to warm or cautious children may be lessactive or tend to be fussy, and may withdraw or react negatively to new situations; but over time they maybecome more positive with repeated exposure to anew person, object, or situation. 

Clarifications about Temperament

Not all children’s temperaments fall neatly into one of the three types described. Roughly 65% of childrencan be categorized into one of the three temperamentaltypes: 40% are easy or flexible, 10% are active orfeisty, and 15% can be categorized as slow to warm or cautious. Second, all temperamental traits, likepersonality traits, range in intensity. Children who have the same temperament type might react quite differently in similar situations, or throughout different stages in their development. For example, consider the reactionsof two infants when a stranger comes into the room. Acautious infant might look for her caregiver and relaxwhen she makes eye contact, while another baby withan easy temperament may smile or show little reactionto the stranger. In thinking about Laura’s reactions and behaviors in Ms. Neil’s care, might you categorize her temperamental type as feisty? 

Finally, it is important to understand that although a child’s basic temperament does not change over time, the intensity of temperamental traits can be affected by a family’s cultural values and parenting styles. For example, a family that values persistence (the abilityto stick to a task and keep trying) may be more likelyto praise and reward a child for “sticking with” achallenging task (such as a puzzle). Parental recognitionof the child’s persistent efforts can strengthen the trait, and she may become more persistent and more able tofocus over the course of his childhood. 

A child’s temperament is also influenced to some extent by her interactions with the environment. For example, ifa child is cared for in an environment that places a highpriority on scheduling predictable sleeping, eating, anddiapering/toileting experiences, a child whose biologicalfunctions are somewhat irregular might, over time, beginto sleep, eat, and eliminate more regularly. It is important to know that adults cannot force a change to a child’s temperament; however, the interaction between the child’s temperament and the environment can produce movements along the continuum of intensity for different traits. 

Why Is Temperament Important?

Temperament is important because it helps caregivers better understand children’s individual differences. By understanding temperament, caregivers can learn howto help children express their preferences, desires, andfeelings appropriately. Caregivers and families can also use their understanding of temperament to avoid blamingthemselves or a child for reactions that are normal for that particular child. Most importantly, adults can learn to anticipate issues before they occur and avoid frustratingthemselves and the child by using approaches that do notmatch her temperament. 

Ms. Neil visited Laura in her own home and observed that Laura is constantly trailing behind her oldersiblings, and runs inside and outside the housewith few limitations. The household is a relaxed environment, where the older children help themselves when they are hungry, and Laura’s mother responds to Laura’s hunger or need for sleep whenever they arise. In contrast, Ms. Neil’s program functions on a very consistent schedule, which she feels is importantin preparing children for their later school experiences.Ms. Neil does not have much space indoors, and shefinds outdoor play somewhat difficult to manage withchildren at varying ages and developmental levels.While Laura’s family’s pattern of behavior seems to be a match to her temperament, Ms. Neil’s home does not currently represent a good “fit” for Laura, whomight be categorized as active or feisty. 

Developing a “Goodness of Fit”

One important concept in care that supports healthysocial-emotional development is the notion of “goodnessof fit.” In the previous example, Laura’s activity, intensity, and unpredictability may reflect a mismatch between her temperament and Ms. Neil’s caregiving style and environment. A caregiver can improve the goodness of fit by adapting his or her approach to meet the needs ofthe child. 

Using What You Know About Temperament to Promote Positive Social-Emotional Developmentand Behavior 

You can use your knowledge of temperament in many ways to support positive social-emotional development inthe infants and toddlers you care for: 

  1. Reflect on your own temperament and preferences.Understanding your own temperament can helpyou to identify the “goodness of fit” for each child in your care. Knowing more about your owntemperament traits will also help you to take thechild’s perspective. For example, a caregiver who enjoys movement, loud music playing, and constantbustle might try to imagine what it would feel like tospend all day in a setting that was calm, hushed, andquiet. This reflective process can help you become more attuned to the experience of each child withinyour care. You can then determine what adjustments might be needed to create a better fit for each child. 
  2. Create partnerships with families to understand achild’s temperament. Share what you have learnedabout temperament with the families you serve,and provide information about temperamentaltraits. Talk about what each temperamental trait describes, and ask parents to help you understandtheir child’s activity level, response to new situations, persistence, distractibility, adaptability, mood, intensity, sensitivity, and regularity so that you can learn about the child’s temperament and the family’s cultural values (see Temperament Continuum handout attached). For a better understanding of how thesetraits look in young children, work with families toidentify their child’s individual temperament. Refrain from judging a child’s temperamental traits as “good” or “bad” behavior, and work with parents to see each child’s approach to the world through a positive lens. Understand the contribution each child’s temperament type makes to the group. The active or feisty children are often leaders and creatorsof games, or initiators of play. The slow to warm or cautious child may observe situations carefully andhelp you notice things you hadn’t seen before. The flexible or easy child may take new play partnerson easily. Support each child’s development by recognizing, valuing, and integrating the unique traitsthat each child has, rather than trying to change achild’s temperamental traits. Listen to how the family feels about the temperamentcharacteristics of their child. For example, if a child’s temperament makes his sleeping routines irregular, but his family is consistently trying to get him to napat 1:00 PM, he may be frustrated by expectations thatdon’t fit with his temperament. This frustration, if not understood, might result in conflict between theparents and the child, or result in him demonstratingchallenging behaviors at home or in care. Share withfamilies what you have learned about goodness of fit,and share your strategies, such as individualizing napschedules for your program. As you learn which traits are highly valued by each family, you can partner with them to determine an appropriate balance between thechild’s temperament, the family’s preferences, and the policies of the program. 
  3. Respect and value each child’s temperament when individualizing your curriculum. Recognize howquality caregiving practices support all children’s development, yet certain practices might beespecially important for certain temperament types. A) For the easy or flexible child, ensure that you often check in with her, and initiate communication about her emotions. She might be less likely to demandattention and make her needs or distress known. 
    • You can use language to develop her awareness and understanding of her own emotions, feelings,and reactions. Make sure she knows that her feelings and preferences are recognized and validated.
      • Encourage her to seek help when he needs it, andwork with her to communicate his feelings andneeds to others. “When Jack takes your block, youcan tell him, ‘I am using that.’” B) For the active or feisty child, be prepared to beflexible and patient in your interactions. A child who is feisty can experience intense emotions andreactions. 
    • Provide areas and opportunities for her to makechoices, and engage her in gross-motor and activeplay to expend high energy levels. Feisty children might need a peaceful environment in order tohelp them calm themselves and transition fromplaytime to rest or naptime.
    • When preparing children for transitions, payspecial attention to individualized transition reminders for feisty children by getting down on thechild’s level and making sure that the child hears and understands what will happen next in order toensure smooth experiences throughout the day. 
    • Label children’s emotions by describing what they seem to be feeling (“You are so angry. You really wanted that toy.”) Stay calm when faced with the child’s intense emotions. Reassure him by acknowledging her feelings, and also point out toher when he is calm so he can learn to recognizehis emotions on his own as she grows. C) For the slow to warm or cautious child, provide additional preparation and support for new situations or people who become part of his environment. 
    • Set up a predictable environment and stick to aclear routine. Use pictures and language to remindthe cautious child what will happen next. Drop-off and pick-up might also require extra time fromyou in order to support the cautious child.
    • Give children who are cautious ample time toestablish relationships with new children or to getcomfortable in new situations. Primary caregivers,who can provide a secure base to all children,are particularly important for a cautious child.Help her in unfamiliar situations by observingher cues carefully, and providing support and encouragement for her exploration and increasingindependence. (e.g., “I’m here. I’ll be right in thischair watching you try on the dress-up clothes”). Each child’s response to the environment will vary in intensity. Over time, temperamental traits might increase or decrease in intensity. As children grow, develop, and learn to interact with others, the environment, and their families, shifts in temperament might occur. This means caregivers must continue to observe children many timesand in different contexts to ensure that their needs are being met. The importance of adapting strategies in order to create a goodness of fit and meet the unique needs ofthe children and families in care, as Ms. Neil does below, cannot be overstated. Ms. Neil reflected on her own temperament and howit might affect the children in her care, each of whom had their own distinct temperaments. She realizedthat she values a predictable schedule and is mostdrawn to calming, quiet activities. By developing apartnership with Laura’s family, she learned more about Laura’s home and her unique temperament traits. She was then able to better understand Laura’s reactions and behaviors while in care. Ms. Neil began to organize additional outdoor play and activeopportunities in her schedule. She watched Lauraclosely and learned to recognize her need to sleep oreat, and made accommodations to individualize eatingand sleeping schedules for her. She offered Laura many advance reminders when transitions were aboutto take place, and was patient and understandingwhen she experienced intense emotions. Soon, Lauraappeared to be much more comfortable in Ms. Neil’s family child care home, and was able to better useher energy to build strong and positive relationshipswith Ms. Neil and the other children. Through understanding herself, the children, and their families’temperament, Ms. Neil created an environment thatbetter met all of the children’s needs. Ultimately, the work she did positively impacted the experience ofLaura and the other children in her care. 
  4. Who Are the Children Who Have Participated in Research on Temperament?Research in temperament has blossomed in the last15 years through the efforts of literally hundreds of scientists in many disciplines. Studies that attempt tounderstand facets of temperament in children have beenconducted in a number of countries and with a wide variety of ethnically and linguistically diverse children.Participants in these studies have included childrenfrom European, American, Chinese, and Sub-Saharan African backgrounds. Research on temperament has beenconducted with children and families in home and child care settings.
  5. What Is the Scientific Basis for the Strategies?For those wishing to explore the topic further, the following resources might prove useful: 
    Bridgett, D. J., et al. (2009). Maternal and contextualinfluences and the effect of temperament development during infancy on parenting in toddlerhood. Infant Behavior & Development. 32(1), 103-116.Carey, W. B., & McDevitt, S. C. (1994). Prevention and early intervention. Individual differences as risk factors for the mental health of children. New York: Brunner/Mazel.Chess, S.. & Thomas, A. (1996). Temperament theory and practice. New York: Brunner/Mazel.Chess, S., & Thomas, A. (1999). Goodness of Fit. New York: Brunner-Routledge.Hwang, A., Soong, W., & Liao, H. (2009). Influences of biological risk at birth and temperament ondevelopment at toddler and preschool ages. Child: Care, Health & Development. 35(6), 817-825.Klein, V., et al. (2009). Pain and distress reactivity and recovery as early predictors of temperament intoddlers born preterm. Early Human Development.85(9), 569-576.Pitzer, M., Esser, G., Schmidt, M., & Laucht, M. (2009). Temperamental predictors of externalizing problems among boys and girls: a longitudinal study in a high-risk sample from ages 3 months to 15 years. European Archives of Psychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience.259(8), 445-458.Rubin, K. H., Burgess, K. B., Dwyer, K. M., & Hastings, P. D. (2003). Predicting preschoolers’ externalizing behaviors from toddler temperament, conflict, andmaternal negativity. Developmental Psychology. 39(1), 164-176.Thomas, A., Chess, S., Birch, H. G., Hertzig, M. E., & Korn, S. (1963). Behavioral individuality in earlychildhood. NewYork: New York University Press.Van Aken, C., et al. (2007). The interactive effects of temperament and maternal parenting ontoddlers’ externalizing behaviours. Infant & Child Development, 16(5), 553-572. This What Works Brief is part of a continuing series of short, easy-to-read, “how to” information packets on a variety of evidence-based practices, strategies, and intervention procedures. The Briefs are designed to help teachers and other caregivers support young children’s social and emotional development. In-service providers and others who conduct staff development activities should find them especially useful in sharing information with professionals and parents. The Briefs include examples and vignettes that illustrate how practical strategies might be used in a variety of early childhood settings and home environments. This material was developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (Cooperative Agreement N. PHS 90YD0215). The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial projects, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. You may reproduce this material for training and information purposes. 10/2010 Newsletter constructed by the Graphics Core of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt University. kc.vanderbilt.edu 

Temperament Continuum HANDOUT 23 Place the initials of each of the children in your care on the continuum for each trait based on your observations and discussions with the child’s family. Then, write your initials where you feel you fall on each trait in the continuum. Use this tool to analyze where your temperament is similar and different to the children you care for. Then, knowing that it is the adult who must adjust to make the “fit” good, use the suggestions above to create care strategies that provide the best possible experience for each child. 

Activity Level:Very Active Not Active wiggle and squirm, difficulty sitting still sit back quietly, prefer quiet sedentary activities 

Distractibility:Very Distractible Not Distractible Difficulty concentrating High degree of concentration Difficulty paying attention when engaged in an activity Pays attention when engaged in an activity Easily distracted by sounds or sights during activities Not easily distracted by sounds or sights during activities 

Intensity:Very Intense Not Intense Intense positive and negative emotions Muted emotional reactions Strong reactions 

Regularity:Very Regular Not Regular Predictable appetite, sleep patterns, elimination Unpredictable appetite, sleep patterns, elimination 

Sensory Threshold:High Threshold Low Threshold Not sensitive to physical stimuli including sounds, Sensitive to physical stimuli including sounds, tastes, touch, temperature changes tastes, touch, temperature changes Falls asleep anywhere, tries new foods, wears new clothing easily Picky eater, difficulty sleeping in strange crib/bed 

Approach/Withdrawal:Tendency to Approach Tendency to Withdraw Eagerly approaches new situations or people Hesitant and resistant when faced with new situations, people, or things. 

Adaptability:Very Adaptable Difficulty Adapting Transitions easily to new activities and situations Has difficulty transitioning to new activities or situations 

Persistence: Persistent Easily Frustrated Continues with a task or activity in the face of obstacles Moves on to a new task or activity when Doesn’t become frustrated easily faced with obstacles. Gets frustrated easily 

Mood: Positive Mood Serious Mood Reacts to the world in a positive way, generally cheerful Reacts to situations negatively, mood is generally serious

ZERO TO THREE, Retrieved from worldwideweb http://www.zerotothree.org/site/PageServer?pagename=key_temp June 11, 2009 2 Dimensions of temperament (found in several places and merged/adapted). 3 WestEd. (1995). The Program for Infant Toddler Caregivers’ (PITC) Trainers Manual, module 1: Social-emotional growth and socialization (p. 21). Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education. 4 Thomas, Chess, Birch, Hertzig, & Korn, 1963.

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