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An Introduction to Temperament 

Early learning professionals spend several hours a day with the children in their care, during which they have the opportunity to develop deep, meaningful relationships. Along the way, educators learn about individual children’s likes and dislikes, as well as what makes them tick. The connection can become second nature for providers, who are often able to anticipate children’s preferences before they are even verbalized.

Have you wondered why some children are easy-going, while others consistently have strong reactions?  Why does one child transition to a new activity with ease, while another is consistently upset by the change?

The way children experience and respond to the world around them is referred to as temperament. Understanding each child’s temperament can help us set up our classroom environments to most effectively support the children in our care. As we learn about temperament, we go beyond knowing how a child is going to react and begin to understand why.

Understanding Temperament

According to Zero to Three, temperament “is the collection of characteristics – emotional intensity, sensory reactivity, activity level, adaptability, persistence – that makes each of us unique.” Temperament is biologically based, according to the way each person’s brain and nervous system is uniquely wired.  Temperament is not something that occurs as a result of a child’s experiences, but is present from birth.

Types of Temperament

The terms used to describe types of temperament vary by organization and research study, they generally fall into four categories.  Following is the definition of each category as outlined by Dr. Alicia Lieberman, in her book, The Emotional Life of the Toddler:

  • High-Activity: Children with high activity levels have a lot of energy and require time to run around and stretch their legs throughout the day.

  • Slow-to-Warm-Up: Often, we describe these children as “shy.” Children who are slow to warm up might require a few times meeting a new person or being in a new environment before they feel comfortable.

  • Easy: This is a child who has mild reactions to change or new people, and is fairly easy-going. This child does not have big reactions and is not easily upset.

  • Intense: An intense child has big emotions and is easily frustrated. Children with an intense temperament are highly sensitive, quick to react, and can be difficult to soothe.

As we look at the types of temperament, it is helpful to remember two particular aspects of temperament. The first is that not all children fall neatly into each of these categories. Each child is unique, and some might show signs of more than one temperament. Second, no temperament is better or worse than the others, as all children are uniquely special. While some temperaments might be easier for us to work with than others, it is important that we celebrate every individual child for who they are.

Questions to Consider

Reading through the above list of temperaments probably brought specific children to mind. It can be beneficial to take some time to think about these children, and also reflect on your own reactions to each of these temperaments. The following questions might help to guide your thinking:

  • Which temperament is the most difficult for you to deal with? How do you react when working with a child whose temperament challenges you?

  • What techniques can you use to keep yourself calm as you support a child with a challenging temperament?

  • Are there any changes that you could make to your classroom routine to support children…

    • with high activity levels?

    • who are slow to warm up?

    • who have intense reactions?

More Information and Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about temperament, and how to support children, the following resources might be helpful:  

  • Frustration Tolerance from Zero to Three: Do you work with children who are easily frustrated, or who tend to get upset when something doesn’t go their way? This article shares strategies to support these children, including helping children learn to wait and cope with frustration. Click the following links to view this article in English and in Spanish.

  • Understanding Temperament in Infants and Toddlers from Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL): This resource is lengthy, but it is full of helpful, research-backed information. The article describes temperament and shares tips for ECE professionals who want to build upon what they know about temperament to promote positive social-emotional development. Click here to view the full article.

  • Children with Shy or Slow to Warm Up Temperaments from Zero to Three: This article will help parents and caregivers of children who are “slow to warm up” learn how to cope with new people, new experiences, and changing schedules in ways that suit their temperament. Click here to view the full article.

  • A Video on Temperament from Zero to Three: If you are interested in learning more, you might enjoy the video below that describes the basics to temperament.



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