Temperament is a contextual and biological trait that influences how an individual interacts with the environment. Although scholars have organized and prioritized different dimensions of temperament, in this chapter we focus on temperament dimensions that are most salient to—and how they are exhibited in—early childhood classrooms. Temperament continues to be an important topic in early childhood classrooms because it is both important for children learning to manage their social emotional competence, which relates to long-term academic success and positive mental health, and for teachers to develop classroom management skills that provide a positive climate for an array of children and temperament types. After introducing the notion of temperament, we describe how teachers may create environments and react to children in ways that support child temperament. Finally, INSIGHTS into Children’s Temperament, an empirically based social–emotional intervention, will be introduced. This intervention focuses on how children’s temperament unfolds in the classroom and how the adults in children’s lives can create “goodness-of-fit” for optimal outcomes.
- early childhood
- elementary classroom
- INSIGHTS intervention
Children’s behavior in school settings varies widely depending on the situation and setting (e.g., from child to child as well as within an individual child). Child behavior is highly variable within the early school years because critical self-regulation skills, that assist with adhering to expectations of teachers and peers, are still developing . For many young children, typical behavioral expressions include negative behaviors indicative of anger (i.e., yelling, hitting) or sadness (i.e., crying), and positive behaviors indicative of sociability (e.g., greeting new children) and persistence (e.g., sticking to a task until it is completed). Thus, children are not only greatly affected by their encircling environment [2, 3], but also by their individual, internal characteristics such as temperament [4, 5, 6]; the interplay between environment and individual temperament creates a transactional relationship between how children both receive and affect their environments, specifically the classroom [6, 7].
Social emotional competence, which includes temperament awareness and self-regulation development, is important for young children to process and positively interact with various social stimuli . Environmental stimuli may include stressors or trauma that directly or indirectly influence an individual . A 2007 study  suggests that at least five million children in the United States “experience some extreme traumatic event”. These traumatic experiences include natural disasters as well as human-caused social problems . A 2016 study  found that 48% of children in their sample were influenced by some form of violence, and therefore victimization, within the previous school year. In addition to these existing traumas, the current years have brought forth novel national and global stressors. Cornonavirus-19 (COVID-19) is a global pandemic that has potentially affected every household and every school; although limited research has been published about the COVID-19 effects on young children, it can be hypothesized that this natural disaster will greatly increase child trauma and stress . Racial injustice and economic declines are also global phenomena about which society has grown more aware due to COVID-19. Thus, early social competence development is needed for children to avoid negative consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder [1, 8]. This chapter aims to provide useful information about child temperament as well as an intervention that provides important social–emotional development to young children promoting long-term positive development and mental health.
Temperament refers to individual genetic and personality differences in disposition that represent emotional reactivity and self-regulation [5, 7, 11, 12]. Emotional reactivity is conceptualized as an individual’s natural and initial response to environmental stimuli and is measured in terms of the duration and intensity of the response [5, 12, 13]. Self-regulation refers to the ability to adapt or control one’s “temperamental reactivity” . That is, temperamental regulation is the ability to modulate emotional and behavioral reactions to the environment [5, 12]. In this way, reactivity and regulation are synergistic; regulation
2. Historical context of temperament research
Temperament has been studied since the 1970’s and remains relevant in today’s classrooms. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess  launched the New York Longitudinal Study—a multiple dimension examination of temperament in infants. This set the foundation for contemporary research on temperament . Inspired by observing their own children, Thomas and Chess conducted parent interviews regarding their infants’ behavior in various contexts and in-depth observations of infants aged 3–6 months . Noting individual differences in the infants’ primary reaction patterns, they observed nine temperament dimensions: activity level, adaptability, approach-withdrawal, attention span/task persistence, distractibility, intensity, mood, rhythmicity, and threshold to responsiveness . Activity refers to the level of motor activity. Adaptability is defined by how easily a child adapts to changes or transitions in the environment, whereas approach-withdrawal is how a child responds to new stimuli . Attention span or task persistence is how long a child sticks with an activity when difficulties arise, as opposed to distractibility, which is the extent to which a child may be distracted by a stimulus and change behavior. Intensity is the level of energy a child displays in responses (i.e., happiness, sadness, anger, etc.). Mood describes a child’s overall disposition, or the negative and positive feelings a child typically displays. Rhythmicity, also referred to as regularity, is the degree of predictability of a child’s behavior. Last, threshold to responsiveness is the level of stimulation needed to elicit a child’s reaction [17, 18].
From these dimensions, Thomas and Chess found that approximately 60% of children could be classified as one of three types (i.e., easy, difficult, or slow to warm). Children categorized as “easy” were described as having a more positive mood, higher levels of regulation, lower intensity in reaction to stimuli, and more openness in approach to unknown people, places, and situations. In contrast, children categorized as “difficult” were described as having a high level of reactivity, tending to withdraw from new people, places, and situations, and slowly adapting to changes or transitions. Children categorized as “slow to warm” were described as displaying lower levels of activity as well as responding to new situations with a lower level of intensity than their counter parts. Like those in the “difficult” category, children in the “slow to warm” group also tended to withdraw from new people, places, and situations and adapt slowly to changes or transitions . Thomas and Chess  stressed that no temperament type was better or worse than another, but that positive adjustment was predicated on the “goodness-of-fit” between the child’s temperament and the environment. For instance, a “difficult” child is more likely to require a supportive environment with sensitive and responsive parents and teachers, whereas an “easy” child may thrive in various contexts because they do not demand as much attention and support from parents and teachers . It is important to note that difficult temperament qualities in children vary across cultures .
Although Thomas and Chess laid the foundation for modern temperament research, most researchers today recognize the framework of Rothbart and colleagues that link biological and environmental factors of temperament. Rothbart and Derryberry  define temperament as “constitutionally based individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation, influenced over time by genes, maturation, and experience”, with constitutional referring to the biological determinates of temperament. Rothbart and colleagues conceptualize temperament as resulting from the interplay of reactive and regulatory temperament dimensions, with an emphasis on the role of regulation in the development and display of temperament across age [5, 21]. These regulatory processes begin to develop during early preschool with the greatest development happening during preschool and kindergarten. From this point forward, regulation is rather stable through the lifespan [5, 6].
Current temperament research recognizes that temperament is relatively stable; individual differences in temperament appear at birth and have strong biological bases. For example, researchers have found the amygdala to be associated with fearfulness ; activation of the amygdala increases when there is perceived threat . The amygdala has also been linked to the prefrontal cortex region of the brain that is associated with state and trait anxiety , executive functioning, and attentional systems . These studies suggest a neurobiological link to temperament. In addition, studies have shown a genetic link to temperament traits such as activity level, attention and persistence, impulsivity, negative emotionality, shyness, and effortful control . However, temperament is not influenced by biology alone – it is also shaped by the environment . Approximately 20–60% of observed variation in temperament is due to genetic factors and the remaining variance, 40–80%, is due to environmental influences .
3. Cultural context of temperament research
Although temperament is biologically based, there are patterns and distinctions that vary across cultural contexts . Within the Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, culture can be examined from various levels ranging from the most individual level, the microsystem, to the most overarching level, the chronosystem . Each of these levels may have varying influences on a child. For instance, parental and teacher guidance are micro levels that directly influence a child. However, COVID-19 and racial injustice are looming global realities within the chronosystem which means that even if a child does not fully understand these circumstances, every aspect of their environment is still altered by these natural and social atrocities. Cross-societal comparisons across enveloping societal characteristics (i.e., overarching norms, social-economic status, values, and government systems) have been conducted [ 28, 29, 30] although research has yet to analyze how the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a novel cross-societal experience, or global racism may alter child temperament. Several observational studies of Eastern and Western societies have examined whether certain dimensions of temperament are more or less universal and the extent of cultural influence [28, 29]. Research suggests that children and the styles of parenting to which they are exposed, differ in collectivist cultures compared with individualistic cultures.  found that when they compared two Western countries, the United States and Germany, White children from both countries had similar temperaments. The researchers concluded that was likely because of the individualistic values similar to both nations.
Further, Krassner and colleagues  conducted a study of young children from Western (United States, Chile), Eastern (South Korea), and in between (Poland) contexts. The four countries that they examined represent individualistic (United States) and collectivist (South Korea, Chile) cultures with Poland being both geographically and culturally in between the United States and South Korea . The researchers found several differences in child temperament; Chilean children tended to have higher negative affectivity than children in other countries, South Korean children tended to have higher effortful control, Polish children’s temperaments were similar to South Korean children with regard to lower surgency levels (i.e., high motor activity, impulsivity), yet differed from all countries on all other temperament variables, and children from the United States were similar to Chilean children in that they “appear to be [more] impulsive and sociable” than Polish and South Korean children. The differences emerging in this cross-cultural study may also stem from racial and ethnic distinctions .
Although temperament has been largely analyzed in terms of global contextual variations, limited research has specifically analyzed whether child racial and ethnic identities, particularly for non-White and minority children, moderate or influence temperament [31, 32, 33]. Race and ethnicity must be recognized as moderating factors because of the racial discrimination that pervades the United States education system [34, 35, 36]. Thomas and Chess were the first to propose that child temperament relates to
Worobey and Islas-Lopez conducted a small-scale longitudinal analysis of low-income African American mothers’ reports on their infant’s temperament . Their findings were congruent with previous literature in that the infants increased motor activity as well as decreased fussiness and crying episodes through a three-month developmental period; previous research has suggested that as infants develop, they learn to fuss only when they need to and they gain motor ability and functioning. Although their sample size does not characterize all Black Americans in the United States, the authors recognized the need to address the racial and ethnic gap in child temperament literature. Lee and Doan  also suggest that ethnicity moderates’ children’s temperament. Their study compared European American and Chinese American children from the same United States city . Although all children were born in the United States, they found that European American children had higher affect-extroversion than Chinese American children, thus supporting distinctions between Eastern and Western cultural values even though all children were living in the same US city . Although temperament variation is considered positive, many children of color in the United States are perceived to exhibit more negative temperament traits as well as more negative behavior patterns than White peers. For instance, high maintenance temperament is often reported as a negative when demonstrated by minority students . Rather than characterizing students’ behavior as negative, teachers should reflect on how they could better support each students’ classroom adjustment: What barriers does each student face entering the classroom? How does culture intersect with temperament? How can the instructor increase their awareness of a students’ home life? How can students’ home lives be incorporated into the class? More temperament research in subcultural variation is needed to assess the true validity of temperament’s initial connotations. This is especially important because of the strong links between children’s positive classroom experience and their academic achievement and classroom belonging.
4. Classroom context of early childhood temperament
Children’s temperament has been related to their academic outcomes [6, 42] social success [43, 44, 45], and mental health . Both reactive and regulatory temperament characteristics are salient to the classroom environment; reactive temperament traits, such as shyness , activity level , negative emotionality, anger , and regulatory temperament traits, such as attentional focusing and inhibitory control  are particularly relevant to children’s success in school because of the inherently social, competitive, and academic nature of the classroom context. Children are expected to interact positively with peers by sharing and taking turns in group activities, as well as with teachers, by following directions and responding well to new information, changing circumstances, and redirection. These behaviors require children to enact behaviors that may be challenging (i.e., staying quiet, remaining still, raising a hand to get the teacher’s attention, and waiting for a turn to participate in a desirable activity). For children with temperament indicative of higher reactivity, adjustment to the classroom environment requires them to engage higher levels of regulation. However, without sufficient regulation skills, this may be especially difficult. Thus, children with high reactivity and low self-regulation will likely have a more difficult adjustment to the classroom environment; a child with high self-regulation and, especially, low reactivity will likely have an easier adjustment. A visual representation of how low or high regulation and reactivity interactions affect a child’s behavior can be found in Figure 1.
4.1 Negative reactivity in the classroom
Negative reactivity is conceptualized as a child’s tendency to feel and express negative emotions (e.g., gets easily angered/frustrated, often cries/yells, moody/cranky). Children high in negative reactivity become easily upset, react strongly to environmental stimuli or changes, and often seem moody; they will have more difficulty adapting to the world than children who are calmer or inclined to “go with the flow” [5, 17]. Especially without the support of strong regulatory skills, behavior indicative of negative reactivity can be antithetical to the classroom environment. Children who tend to display negative reactivity [categorized as “difficult” 67]. are at risk in the classroom environment because they tend to have lower quality relationships with peers  and teachers [51, 52] and poorer academic outcomes.
4.2 Shyness in the classroom
Shyness, or withdrawal, refers to the extent to which a child is uncomfortable with new situations or new people (e.g., is shy with new adults, does not approach/avoids new children/visitors, acts bashful, prefers to play with a familiar person, is nervous/anxious/fearful/wary in new situations) . Shyness can impede children’s social and academic success in educational settings. Shy children may feel uncomfortable asking for help or speaking up when needed and often become at a risk socially and academically. Because of their lack of interactions with peers and teachers in the classroom, shy children’s social and academic difficulties tend to go unnoticed by teachers . The social nature of the classroom can be daunting for children who are withdrawn and quiet; therefore, the classroom may cause shy children to miss out on classroom interactions and instruction . Shyness is a reactive temperament trait that is often neglected; shyness puts children at risk for withdrawal and disengagement in the classroom [47, 54]. In addition, children who are high in shyness tend to be underestimated by their teachers in terms of their ability and interest .
4.3 Motor activity in the classroom
Motor activity, the tendency for a child to display large body movement or physical motor activity, is often associated with excitement and eagerness for new experiences. However, because of the structured nature of classroom contexts, high motor activity often disrupts whole class settings (e.g., inability to sit still, running in classrooms, and rushed or hurried behavior) [48, 56]. Motor activity can both facilitate and impede children’s adjustment in the classroom depending on how well a child can regulate this high activity level (e.g., running during outdoor playtime, but sitting during lessons). When children are highly active, their behavior may be disruptive to their learning, whereas a more moderate level of activity can be conducive to academic growth [42, 48]. Teachers can support active children’s adjustment by providing expectations that align with those children’s activity levels .
4.4 Self-regulation in the classroom
While some children have a difficult time hiding their temperamental tendencies, other children have high levels of regulation, allowing them to control negative reactions, internalize inappropriate reactions, stick to tasks until they are finished, and behave appropriately [5, 57]. Effortful control, often conceptualized as a child’s ability to pay attention to specific stimuli yet inhibit inappropriate behaviors, reinforces children’s adjustment in the classroom. Children with high effortful control regulate their initial spontaneous reactions to the environment purposefully. For example, shy children with high effortful control may speak up despite feeling anxious (purposeful activation) and active children with high effortful control may sit still on the carpet during circle time despite feeling antsy (purposeful inhibition) .
Correspondingly, task persistence, often conceptualized as a child’s self-direction in completing tasks or responsibilities (e.g., remembers to do assignments without being reminded, returns to responsibilities after an interruption, continues assignments/projects until finished, or complete assignments), also promotes children’s success in school. Children with low task persistence tend to have problems completing tasks and focusing attention . Alternatively, children with high task persistence show the ability to ignore distractions, remain focused on specific tasks, and successfully complete assignments. Task persistence may relate to a child’s ability to ignore desires or impulses to accomplish a specific goal (e.g., listening to instructions in order to determine how to play a new game).
5. Teachers supporting temperament variance
A higher quality classroom environment fosters increased social skills and academic achievement as well as decreased aggression and externalizing behavior; this is particularly significant for children who are higher in reactivity and lower in regulation [59, 60, 61, 62]. Understanding temperament is a useful tool for early childhood teachers to promote goodness-of-fit which occurs when teaching or caregiving practices positively align with children’s temperament and classroom interactions [41, 63, 64]. Teachers who are knowledgeable about various temperament types and combinations are better equipped to respond to the individual differences in their classroom more thoughtfully and effectively. Therefore, interventions that provide teachers with temperament-based strategies with better understanding and effective management of children’s emotions and behavior are helpful for disrupting trajectories for negative outcomes . Temperament-based responses include warmth, support, encouragement, affirmation, expectations, and problem-solving. Although individual child temperament is generally constant, their engulfing environment is adaptable. Goodness-of-fit can be established by modifying the environment (e.g., demands, expectations, and opportunities) so that it is responsive to every child’s temperament  and cultural differences .
Kinkead-Clark  explored how early childhood teachers perceive the use of temperament-based approaches in classroom management and how children benefit from using temperament-based approaches to solve conflict in the classroom. Teachers who were trained to use temperament-based approaches in this study felt that it was unfair to use a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach with regard to classroom management, appreciated children’s temperamental diversity, and better understood how to respond appropriately to each unique child . Further, Kinkead-Clark , suggest that it is important to understand what motivates child behaviors and to have realistic expectations about child temperament development, skills, and competencies (e.g., who they are and how this relates to what they do). For instance, it is more realistic to provide children who are low in task persistence with smaller parts of an assignment that are manageable rather than requesting they complete the entire assignment at once.
Children who have difficulty completing complex and sequenced assignments are not lazy or incompetent; however, they may be low in task persistence and require additional teacher scaffolding to understand how to break down the assignment into smaller components. Children who have difficulties remaining still are not intentionally disrespecting the teacher yet may have high motor activity and require more breaks in order to demonstrate better control. To help teachers understand how to best create goodness-of-fit in their classrooms, temperament scholar, Sandee McClowry Ph.D., RN, FAAN, has developed an evidence-based social–emotional intervention for kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.
6. INSIGHTS into Children’s Temperament
Part two focuses on temperament-based management strategies. Teachers and parents learn how to apply temperament-based strategies specifically matched to children’s temperament in order to improve children’s behavior. Part three focuses on children’s developmental needs. Teachers and parents learn how to support children in temperamentally challenging situations using scaffolding and stretching strategies. If the situation is overwhelming, parents and teachers are taught to remove or reduce it (i.e., scaffolding). However, if the situation is manageable when the child receives support, teachers and parents can apply stretching strategies to enhance children’s self-regulation. The incorporation of parents is critical for continuity between school and home contexts.
Teachers and parents are provided with ‘vignettes’ (i.e., quality video clips) that demonstrate how to model and frame temperament with young children. Vignettes are short videos, ranging from thirty seconds to two minutes, that help relay content visually. For adult participants, scripts were written that showed how the characters–each with distinctive temperaments–would react in various situations. The scripts were based on parent feedback from initial pilot studies . There are a total of 50 vignettes; half are intended for parent participants and the remaining half are intended for child participants. The vignettes were assessed by experts in temperament theory for content validity. Experts scored each vignette for content relevancy and developmental appropriateness. They strongly endorsed the program materials with the average for the relevancy index being 3.72 and the developmental appropriateness 3.86 out of 4.0 . Vignettes were recorded with real child and adult actors. The quality vignettes and relatable typologies help parents and teachers see how distinctive temperaments react differently to the same real-life experiences. These real-world vignette scenarios interacting with friends, family members, and teachers solidify content, as well as make it memorable and applicable for adults who are new to the idea of temperament. In one of the child-focused vignettes, “Hilary wants to play with Imani but Imani says no. Imani tells Hilary nobody likes her because she is the teacher’s favorite student” . Vignettes such as this one prepare young children for difficult situations and allow them to think about various resolutions ahead of time. To assess understanding for adult participants, handouts, worksheets, and assignments also assisted the teachers and parents as they identify child dimensions and profiles. Teachers and parents are further cautioned to avoid labeling a child by profile; the profiles are used only as tools to compare and contrast behavior and for the ease of communication within workshops, yet each child is recognized as an individual beyond a profile.
The children’s classroom version of
A major goal of
It is essential that research on temperament development in classrooms continues to be conducted so that the concept remains relevant and reliable as children face new and unprecedented challenges. As previously mentioned, today in the United States alone, more than half of young children experience some form of trauma [8, 9]. Due to the spread of COVID and the continuation of racial injustices, youth trauma is likely to increase . As an external factor, trauma impacts child mental health by interacting with temperament and ultimately affecting child behavior and success in school. Interventions such as INSIGHTS help children and teachers recognize and work with temperament, thus fostering the development of social–emotional competence for navigating current and future challenges [1, 8]. Still, there is much we do not yet know. There is evidence that temperament influences intrinsic classroom motivation, although research  suggest that it does not significantly influence extrinsic classroom motivation. There is also little information on how modern classroom realities interact with temperament (e.g., virtual learning, social distancing/ decreased social contact, and increased attachment to the home setting). Although these global stressors affect each individual child’s temperament combinations and behaviors, understanding the major temperament dimensions allows teachers to consider child point of views and more fluently adjust to accommodate individual differences.
INSIGHTS New York, Jamaica, Nebraska.
This video provides introductory overview of the INSIGHTS intervention. Footage was collected from Nebraska samples. https://vimeo.com/339204616