Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Temperament is a general term referring to individual differences in behavior tendencies that are biologically based, present early in life, and relatively stable across situations and time (Bates & Wachs, 1994; Goldsmith et al., 1987). Individual differences in temperament are evidenced in the unique predispositions students bring to the school setting in terms of activity level, attention span, mood, approach to new experiences, and so on. Many have posited that individual differences in temperament during the early years constitute nascent personality (Caspi, 1998).

Evidence supports both genetic and environmental influences on temperament. Behavior-genetic research studies comparing correlations of temperament characteristics between monozygotic and dizygotic twins indicate significant genetic influences on some temperament characteristics from early childhood through adolescence. Monozygotic twins are much more temperamentally similar to each other than dizygotic twins (Caspi, 1998). Given the evidence supporting the role of genetic factors in temperament, researchers look to physiological, neurological, biochemical, and hormonal variables as the biological mechanisms by which temperament is transmitted across generations (Bates & Wachs, 1994). For example, Werner and colleagues (2007) reported that fetal heart rate activity predicted infant temperament assessed via parental report and behavioral observations at 4 months. With respect to environmental factors, children with difficult temperament are at increased risk of subsequent externalizing behavior problems when family conflict is present (Guerin et al., 2003).


Although temperament is an ancient concept (Kagan & Snidman, 2004), a large body of empirical research on temperament in children followed the dissemination of the theoretical perspective developed by Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and Herbert Birch (1968). They defined temperament as follows:

Temperament may best be viewed as a general term referring to the how of behavior. It differs from ability, which is concerned with the what and how well of behaving, and from motivation, which seeks to account for why a person does what he is doing. When we refer to temperament, we are concerned with the way in which an individual behaves. (p. 4)

Thomas and colleagues identified nine dimensions of temperament, and these are listed in Table 1. Additionally, they observed three constellations or patterns characterizing young children's temperament. They labeled the largest temperament pattern, comprising about 40% of their sample,


as “Easy” temperament: regular biological functioning, positive approach to new stimuli, quick adaptation to change, positive mood, and mild/moderate intensity in expression. About 10% exhibited the opposite pattern, labeled “Difficult” temperament. Thomas and Chess labeled the third pattern, seen in about 15% of their sample, as “Slow to Warm Up” temperament. These children's reactions to new stimuli were more often negative than those of children with “Easy” temperament, but they expressed themselves more mildly than children with “Difficult” temperament. Not all children fit into one of the three categories, however, and most research is based on one or more specific dimensions of temperament displayed in Table 1 rather than the constellations.

Subsequent to the Thomas and Chess model of temperament, other approaches to children's temperament emerged. Arnold Buss and Robert Plomin viewed temperament as early-appearing inherited personality traits and focused on three temperaments: emotionality, activity, and sociability. Hill Goldsmith and Joseph Campos developed a conceptualization of temperament centering on infant primary emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, pleasure, and interest, for example. Mary Rothbart and Douglas Derryberry proposed a developmental model defining temperament as constitutional differences in reactivity and self-regulation (Goldsmith et al., 1987). Jerome Kagan and colleagues (Kagan & Snidman, 2004) focused on a single temperament characteristic, children's initial reaction to unfamiliar events. At the extremes of this continuum are children who respond to unfamiliar stimuli with shyness and restraint (inhibited) and those who are sociable, talkative, and minimally fearful (uninhibited).

The most widely used method to measure temperament in infancy and early childhood is through caretaker (usually maternal) reports on standardized temperament inventories; child, youth, and adult self-report inventories are also available. Inventories for teachers to describe their students' temperament have also been developed (Keogh, 2003). Inventories offer the advantages of efficiency in assessing a range of temperament characteristics and established reliability and validity, with ratings based on individuals who are well-acquainted with the child over a range of situations and across time. In addition to inventories, a variety of behavioral assessment procedures are available (Goldsmith & Rothbart, 1991). Mechanical (e.g., actometers) and behavioral measures of activity have been employed.


A growing literature documents the stability of children's temperament. In the United States, the Fullerton Longitudinal Study in California reported stability on eight of the nine Thomas and Chess temperament dimensions from ages 2 through 12 years. Additionally, six of the nine dimensions were assessed at ages 14 and 16 years, and they also showed stability from middle childhood (Guerin et al., 2003). Mathie-sen and Tambs (1999) reported strong stability of the Buss and Plomin temperament traits in a Norwegian sample followed from 18 through 50 months. Komsi and colleagues (2006) observed significant consistency across infancy and middle childhood in a sample of Finnish children for several temperament dimensions based on the Rothbart framework. In the early 2000s, evidence of stability in inhibited/uninhibited temperament was accumulating (Kagan & Snidman, 2004).


One question to consider is how these stable, individual differences relate to children's functioning in school. The tasks of school demand not only intellectual ability, but also characteristics such as flexibility and sustained effort (Keogh, 2003). Across the entire span of schooling, temperament characteristics relate to children's ability to successfully negotiate the multiple demands of school, whether in terms of academic achievement, socially appropriate behavior, or relationships.

In elementary school, three primary temperament characteristics relating to accomplishment are activity, dis-tractibility, and persistence (Keogh, 2003). Either high or extremely low levels of activity, high levels of distractibil-ity, and low levels of persistence relate to low levels of academic achievement. Similarly in early adolescence, persistence and distractibility relate to school success (Guerin et al., 2003). Children who can focus on their work and sustain an effort in spite of obstacles and length of time to completion achieve more in the academic realm.

During adolescence and early adulthood the characteristic of persistence, identified as task orientation, again stands out as important in terms of academic success. In the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, task orientation related positively to academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, parent reports, and self-reports. Task orientation related positively to high school GPA and college GPA, over and above socioeconomic status and IQ (Oliver, Guerin, & Gottfried, 2007).

In addition to the intellectual domain, children's temperament relates to classroom behavior as assessed by teachers. Guerin and colleagues found that high levels of persistence and adaptability as well as low levels of activity and distractibility were related to behaving appropriately, learning, and being happy in class (Guerin et al., 2003). Characteristics associated with the “Difficult” temperament constellation relate to children acting out in school, but there are also internalizing behavior problems related to temperament. Extremely inhibited children lack social competence and have high levels of social anxiety (Martin & Fox, 2006).

The quality of the student-teacher relationship has implications for children's competency and achievement in school. Teachers value certain characteristics such as adaptability, persistence, approach, and positive mood (Keogh, 2003). Thus, the behavior of some students with high activity levels, high distractibility, and low levels of persistence, can be misattributed by teachers as non-compliance and problem behavior. As evidence of the way in which temperament characteristics relate to child-teacher relationships, Guerin and colleagues found that children who are high in activity, low in adaptability, high in intensity, negative in mood, less persistent, and more distractible have greater levels of negative interaction and conflict with their teachers.


Given accumulating evidence that temperament characteristics show long-term stability and that individual differences in temperament relate to children's educational outcomes, numerous temperament researchers and clinicians have provided specific recommendations on using temperament research and theory in the classroom. Indeed, Rothbart and Jones (1998) advocate that college and university teacher-training programs include preparation on both children's temperament characteristics as well as their cognitive-processing capacities. A central tenet of the Thomas and Chess conceptualization of temperament is that development will be optimized when the environment and expectations experienced by children are consonant with their capacities and style of behaving (“goodness of fit”). Because individual children experience the same environment in unique ways, information on children's temperamental patterns could be used to modify classroom management techniques to be more in line with the children's style of behavior and reactivity (Rothbart & Jones, 1998). In addition, recognizing individual differences in temperament helps teachers to anticipate times or situations in which problems are most likely to occur (e.g., in transition periods) with the aim of planning techniques to alleviate or manage the stress of these times (Keogh, 2003). Sources providing specific suggestions to improve the goodness of fit between children's temperament and their classroom experience include Keogh (2003), Kristal (2005), and Rothbart and Jones (1998).


Bates, J. E., & Wachs, T. D. (1994). Temperament: Individual differences at the interface of biology and behavior. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Caspi, A. (1998). Personality development across the life course. In W. Damon & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development (5th ed., pp. 311–388). New York: Wiley.

Goldsmith, H. H., Buss, A. H., Plomin, R., Rothbart, M. K., Thomas, A., Chess, S., et al. (1987). Roundtable: What is temperament? Four approaches. Child Development, 58, 505–529.

Goldsmith, H. H., & Rothbart, M. K. (1991). Contemporary instruments for assessing early temperament by questionnaire and in the laboratory. In J. Strelau & A. Angleitner (Eds.), Explorations in temperament: International perspectives on theory and measurement (pp. 249–272). New York: Plenum.

Guerin, D. W., Gottfried, A. W., Oliver, P. H., & Thomas, C. W. (2003). Temperament: Infancy through adolescence. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (2004). The long shadow of temperament. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keogh, B. K. (2003). Temperament in the classroom. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Komsi, N., Räikkönen, K., Pesonen, A., Heinonen, K., Keskivaara, P., Järvenpää, A., et al. (2006). Continuity of temperament from infancy to middle childhood. Infant Behavior and Development, 29, 494–508.

Kristal, J. (2005). The temperament perspective: Working with children's behavioral styles. New York: Paul H. Brookes.

Martin, J. N., & Fox, N. A. (2006). Temperament. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of early childhood development (pp. 126–146). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Mathiesen, K. S., & Tambs, K. (1999). The EAS temperament questionnaire: Factor structure, age trends, reliability, and stability in a Norwegian sample. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 431–439.

Oliver, P. H., Guerin, D. W., & Gottfried, A. W. (2007). Temperamental task orientation: Relation to high school and college educational achievements. Learning and Individual Differences, 17, 220–230.

Rothbart, M. K., & Jones, L. B. (1998). Temperament, self-regulation, and education. School Psychology Review, 27, 479–491.

Thomas, A., Chess, S., & Birch, H. G. (1968). Temperament and behavior disorders in children. New York: New York University Press.

Werner, E. A., Myers, M. M., Fifer, W. P., Cheng, B., Fang, Y., Allen, R., et al. (2007). Prenatal predictors of infant temperament. Developmental Psychobiology, 49, 474–484.

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