How to Tailor Discipline to Your Child's Temperament

Increase discipline effectiveness based on your child's needs

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Examining the traits that make up your child’s temperament can be very important when determining which discipline strategies are likely to be most effective. What works for one child may not work for another and this is largely due to differences in temperament. It doesn’t appear that temperament is genetic, so there’s a good chance each of your children may have different temperaments and it may be quite different from yours.

Temperament differs slightly from personality. A child’s personality includes things such as intelligence and abilities. Temperament refers to in-born traits only. Researchers, Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, established that a child’s temperament is made up of nine different traits.

Traits that Make Up Temperament

Activity Level – Does your child tend to be very active, moderately active or inactive compared to other children his age?

Regularity - Does your child seem to have a natural tendency to have a routine? Does your child want to eat and sleep at the same times each day?

Approach or Withdrawal - Does your child enjoy trying new things and meeting new people? Or does he prefer to observe others and hang back when presented with new situations?

Adaptability - How quickly does your child adjust to changes? Does he adapt quickly or become upset if his schedule is changed?

Intensity of Reaction - How much of an emotional reaction does he show when he experiences positive and negative situations?

Threshold of Responsiveness - How does your child react to sensory stimulation such as tastes, textures, smells and sounds?

Distractibility - Can your child stay focused on a task or is he easily distracted by noises or activity going on around him?

Attention Span and Persistence - Is your child able to work on a task until it is completed or does he tend to give up or lose interest before it’s finished?
How does he handle transitioning from one activity to the next?

Quality of Mood - On average, does your child seem to be in a fairly good mood or does his mood shift often and seem dependent on whatever is going on around him?

Temperament Categories

Based on these traits, researchers developed three main categories of kids. However, they also noted that about 35% of kids don’t fit into any one category but instead, seem to be a combination of them.

Easy or Flexible (40%) - Kids who are considered to be “easy going” have the most stable moods and a positive outlook on life. They are fairly flexible with changes to their routine and are not disturbed by new experiences. Their routines are fairly predictable.

Active or Difficult (10%) - Active or difficult kids are often considered to be “moody.” Their routines are less predictable. They dislike changes to their routine and may be fearful of meeting new people. They tend to be very sensitive to stimulation, such as loud noises or certain textures.
They also exhibit dramatic reactions to things they dislike.

Slow to Warm (15%) - Slow to warm kids are less active, can be “fussy” and are more fearful of new people and situations. They warm up with gradual exposure to new things after being given ample time to observe and learn before participating.

Finding a Good Fit with Discipline

Your child’s temperament is one of the five factors that influence discipline strategy effectiveness. Examining your child’s temperament can help you decide which discipline strategy is likely to be most effective in addressing behaviors such as temper tantrums or behavior problems at school.

Match your child’s temperament to a discipline strategy. For example, praise may be very effective with a child who is slow to warm as it may motivate them to try new activities faster. They may also respond well to a reward system that provides further motivation and encouragement.

An active or difficult child may respond best to ignoring, time out or loss of a privilege. A token economy system may also be a good discipline tool to encourage good behaviors while keeping their attention.

Easy or flexible kids may do well with a variety of discipline strategies. A combination of positive and negative consequences may be effective in helping them manage behavioral issues.

No matter what sort of temperament your child has, an authoritative approach is likely to be most effective. Positive discipline techniques help promote good behaviors and ensure that intervention strategies use discipline and not punishment.

Child and Adolescent Development by Kelvin L. Seifert and Robert J. Hoffnung (Jan 1997)

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