Over the years Ms. Padilla has almost certainly had kindergarteners who lacked some of the basic knowledge and skills on which early academic success depends - color and shape names, the alphabet, counting, and so on. Some of these children have probably come from lower-income, minority-group backgrounds, just as Lupita has. And in Ms. Padilla's experience, children who can answer questions and contribute to class discussions usually speak up or raise their hands, but Lupita is quiet and restrained. With such data in hand, Ms. Padilla initially concludes that Lupita has not mastered the knowledge and skills she will need in first grade. If the researcher’s videotape had not captured Lupita's social skills and proficiency with puzzles, Lupita might very well have remained on the sidelines throughout much of the school year, getting little assistance on academic skills and few opportunities to capitalize on her many positive personal attributes.
Long before they begin school, children begin to show significant differences in personality—that is, they show some consistency in their behavior in a wide variety of situations. For instance, Lupita tends to be quiet and well-behaved, whereas some of her peers are probably noisy and rambunctious. Lupita is also conscientious about completing her work, whereas at least one of her classmates must be reminded to complete his Spanish assignment. And she is socially astute, quickly tuning in to the nuances of others’ behavior and responding appropriately, whereas some of her age-mates may have little awareness of other people’s verbal and nonverbal messages. Lupita’s conscientiousness and social prowess will undoubtedly serve her well in the years to come. Her quiet nature may or may not work in her favor, depending on classroom tasks and demands. In Ms. Padilla’s class it works against her, to the point where she becomes almost invisible and so rarely gets the academic assistance she needs to move forward.
Children’s personalities are the result of both heredity—especially in the form of inherited temperaments—and such environmental factors as parents’ behaviors and cultural expectations. As you will see, heredity and environment often interact in their influences.
In general, a child’s temperament is his or her general tendency to respond to and deal with environmental events in particular ways. Children seem to have distinct temperaments almost from birth. For instance, some (like Lupita) are quiet and subdued, whereas others are more active and energetic. Researchers have identified many temperamental styles that emerge early in life and are relatively enduring, including general activity level, adaptability, persistence, adventurousness, outgoingness, shyness, fearfulness, inhibitedness, irritability, and distractibility. Most psychologists agree that such temperamental differences are biologically based and have genetic origins (Caspi & Silva, 1995; Keogh, 2003; Pfeifer, Goldsmith, Davidson, & Rickman, 2002; Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000; A. Thomas & Chess, 1977).
Children’s inherited temperaments influence the learning opportunities they have and so also influence the environmental factors that come into play in shaping their personal and social development (N. A. Fox, Henderson, Rubin, Calkins, & Schmidt, 2001; Keogh, 2003). For example, children who are energetic and adventuresome seek out a wider variety of experiences than those who are quiet and restrained. Children who are naturally vivacious and outgoing have more opportunities to learn social skills and establish rewarding interpersonal relationships.
Many temperamental variables affect how students engage in and respond to classroom activities and thus indirectly affect their academic achievement (Keogh, 2003). For instance, students are more likely to achieve at high levels if they are persistent, reasonably (but not overly) energetic, and able to ignore minor distractions. They can also achieve greater academic success if their behaviors lead to friendly, productive relationships with teachers and peers—people who can bolster their self-esteem and support their efforts to learn.
Yet there is no single “best” temperament that maximizes classroom achievement. Instead, children are more likely to succeed at school when their behaviors are a good fit, rather than a mismatch, with classroom expectations. For instance, highly energetic, outgoing children are apt to shine—but quieter students might feel anxious or intimidated—when teachers want students to participate actively in group discussions and projects. Quieter children do better—and some energetic children might be viewed as disruptive—when teachers require a lot of independent seatwork (Keogh, 2003).
As teachers we must recognize that, to a considerable degree, students’ ways of behaving in the classroom—their energy levels, their sociability, their impulse control, and so on—reflect temperamental differences that are not entirely within their control. If we keep this fact in mind, we are apt to be more tolerant of students’ behavioral idiosyncrasies and more willing to adapt our instruction and classroom management strategies to accommodate their individual behavioral styles (Keogh, 2003). The feature “Accommodating Students’ Diverse Temperaments” presents several examples of strategies we might use.
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