Children's Temperament Styles and School Adjustment

Schoolgirls drawing on each others paper
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Theories of temperament began with the New York Longitudinal Study by Thomas, Chess, in the 1950's and 60's. Temperament is how we respond to our environment. An individual's temperament style can be observed in infancy and remains constant throughout the life span.

Look at the seven traits below and rate your child from 1 to 5 on each. Keep in mind that all points on the rating scale fall within the normal range, though you may see extremes in some traits in your child.

Ratings on a trait give parents clues to potential difficulties with school adjustment. These difficulties are discussed, and some helpful strategies and links are provided.

Activity Level​

How active is the child? How long can he sit still? Does he fidget and move around?

Quiet 1...2...3...4...5 Active

The highly active child will naturally have an adjustment to make, even in kindergarten, where he will be expected to sit still for several periods during the day. Most active children can make this adjustment, but some children just can't seem to sit still. They are constantly fidgeting, raising their hand, getting up, touching other students, even knocking over the desk. This trait corresponds partially with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder but is not the only indicator. Talk with the teacher about the problem. Remember, this is his temperament. He's not doing it because he wants attention or to get in trouble.

Perhaps he could be given extra opportunities for needed movement during the day - running errands for the teacher, passing out papers. Set up a behavioral plan with rewards for increasing amounts of time spent quietly at his desk. Staying in from recess should not be in the teacher's repertoire of consequences for this child.


    Is the child distracted from a task by things going on around her?

    Not Distractible 1...2...3...4...5 Very Distractible

    The distractible child notices every thing that is going on around her. Not only is she distracted by external stimuli, but she also will be distracted from a task by her own thoughts, daydreams, and internal stimuli. This is a delightful trait in many ways but definitely causes problems in a classroom with 20 other children.

    Again, this trait may fall in the category of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder if it clusters with overactivity, impulsiveness, and other evidence of serious attention difficulties. Learning to focus is the most important school task for this child. A good strategy for her to learn is the LISTEN technique. This technique is important to use when the teacher is giving instructions.Write the following acronym on a poster to learn and practice at home, and put it somewhere in the child's school materials where she will see it frequently at school.

    L-ook at the teacher
    I-dle your motor (stop thinking about other things)
    S-it up straight
    T-urn to the teacher
    E-ngage your brain (think about what the teacher is saying)

    If your child is bringing home schoolwork that wasn't completed during classtime, distractibility may be the cause. Meet with the teacher to implement a plan to re-focus the child's attention when she becomes distracted during independent work times.


    How does the child handle frustration, initial failure on a task, or being told "no"? How long does he stay with a task?

    Gives Up Easily 1...2...3...4...5 Stubborn

    Although the stubborn child is more difficult to deal with at home, it is generally the non-persistent child who has the most trouble at school.

    This is the child who will stop all attempts at a task once he reaches the first stumbling block. He may elicit disapproval from the teacher because he is constantly asking her to explain things to him rather than attempting them on his own. Frequently, he will turn in an incomplete paper or fail to do his homework because he didn't understand it at first glance. The non-persistent child also finds it difficult to stay focused on a task for more than a few minutes. He needs to learn strategies for staying on task. At home, he should take breaks while doing homework, then return to the work. A kitchen timer is a useful tool for monitoring this strategy. Parents and teachers can find ways to encourage the non-persistent child to "keep trying" with lots of reinforcement for completing tasks even if they are not done perfectly.


    How does the child handle new and stressful situations?

    Approaches 1...2...3...4...5 Withdraws

    This is one of the most easily-recognized traits in children from a very young age. Shyness will affect the child's adaptability in many situations at school. It's important for parents to demonstrate their acceptance of the child and to encourage her self-esteem development. Since it is primarily new situations and people that evoke the withdrawal response, the shy child will usually adapt with time, familiarity, and acceptance.

    A big concern is the development of social skills. You can help your child develop her social skills by providing the opportunity for her to interact with a familiar group of children over a long period of time. Since the classroom composition changes each year, help her to maintain long-term friendships in the neighborhood, church, and community.


    How does the child respond to the emotions he feels?

    Mild Reaction 1...2...3...4...5 High Intensity

    Children vary in their response to emotions. A child who shows a mild reaction to anger, anxiety, fear, and happiness doesn't feel those emotions any less, but his response is less apparent. When the high intensity child becomes angry or fearful everyone knows it, and parents and teachers are, in a way, forced to deal with the child's emotional reactions.

    This is how the intense reaction can become manipulative. Adults feel compelled to deal with the child by placating or problem-solving for him. Instead, you should encourage the child to deal with his emotions on his own. For example, teach him anger management at a young age and let him know that you expect him to learn to handle his own anger.

    Think of an intense emotional reaction as a wave. Your child can learn to recognize the initial signs of anger then begin self-talk and calming strategies to minimize the reaction. During the full crest of the wave of anger and fear, he cannot access his rational thought processes. He is too overcome by the more primitive emotional brain. He will need a cool head nearby to guide him through this stage until the wave begins to dissipate and he can talk about what happened and begin to problem-solve.


    How well does the child deal with transitions?

    Adapts Quickly 1...2...3...4...5 Slow to Adapt

    Subtle cues will indicate your child's level of adaptability. This is more of a global trait that encompasses others such as approach/withdrawal and persistence. Think back to new situations she has encountered. Did she cry when she began daycare or preschool? Have tummyaches or headaches? How did you handle those times?

    These will give you clues to what works to help your slow-to-adapt child in her transition to school days each fall. Some grades will be more difficult for her than others. Kindergarten and first grade are both big transitions. The fourth grade is also a big transition year as children are then expected to do more "reading to learn". Homework is frequently assigned, and independent learning is stressed. In the fifth or sixth grade, your child will likely begin the transition to changing classes during the school day. The best thing you can do is to help her be prepared and organized. Visit a new school before the first day to talk with the teacher and the counselor. Emphasize the positive aspects of a transition to help reduce the anxiety she feels. Talk with her openly about how it's hard for her to feel comfortable in new situations. Help her learn to use her own internal coping skills and the support of others to cope with change.

    You will want to show support and empathy for her yet encourage her independence at the same time.


    How predictable is the child in sleeping, eating, and rhythms during the day?

    Regular 1...2...3...4...5 Irregular

    Irregular sleeping, eating, and daily rhythms are common causes of a poor fit between temperament style and school expectations.

    Frequently, this tendency is blamed on the parents, who are assumed to be too unstructured and lax at home. Fortunately, most children can adapt to a structured environment because it gives them a sense of security and order. Parents should strive to maintain a balance of structure with flexibility to help the irregular child adapt. For example, even though you are not sleepy you still must be in your bed by 8:30, but you may keep the lamp on and read in your bed for 30 minutes. Or, the family eats between 6:30 and 7:30, so you cannot have a Big Mac right now, but you can have an apple.

    Sensory Threshold

    Is the child bothered by too much noise, changes in temperature, different tastes, the feel of clothing?

    Not Sensitive 1...2...3...4...5 Very Sensitive

    This is the picky child. She becomes focused on her discomfort, sometimes to the extent that she is unable to perform adequately in school. She may complain to the teacher, ask to go to the nurse or home, have headaches or stomaches.

    She's a whiner and may have social difficulties as a result. You can't change her sensory threshold. You can only help her adapt. Cut the tags out of her clothing if they bother her. Buy fabrics that are soft, not scratchy or stiff. Request that she be placed in a "structured" classroom, i.e. a quiet one. Let her take her lunch to school. At home, try to maintain a soothing atmosphere. Don't have the TV blaring all the time; instead, play some soft music. Dim the lights a bit in the evening and have a quiet time. Avoid overstimulation of this child, and you will reduce the incidences of whining, tantrums, even illness.


    Is the child basically positive or negative in her reactions?

    Positive...2...3...4...5 Negative

    The negative child will not be easily accepted by teachers and other children. They tend to whine and complain and are generally unpleasant to be around. You can't change her personality and you can't talk her into being happy, so don't try.

    Just accept and love her as she is. Expect that she will appear unhappy often, and remember that it's not because of something you or someone else did. It's just her temperament! Focus on her other positive qualities and help her learn to recognize the good in a situation. Your first question at the dinner table might be "Tell me something good that happened today".

    Another good strategy is to talk about the things you are thankful for in your life and encourage her to recognize and acknowledge the things that make her happy. You may want to warn the teacher that your child has a negative temperament so that she won't spend time trying to figure out what's wrong with her. Most competent teachers will have some good tricks up their sleeve for dealing with your negative child.

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