As a child’s first teacher, parents are in a unique position to understand their child's mood and energy. Many in the field of early education say it's important for parents to take this into consideration when choosing the right preschool for their child. Research suggests that when children are exposed to a learning environment that coincides with their temperament, the result is increased self-esteem, a positive attitude towards learning, and enhanced creativity. But what exactly is temperament and how does it affect learning in the preschool environment?
Temperament, typically displayed shortly after birth, is the “how” of behavior reflected in all children do – how they interact with friends, how they react to changes in daily routines, and how they respond to stimuli in the environment.
In the late 1970’s, psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess identified three temperament types that are used today: Easy, Cautious and Active. Each temperament type has strengths and weaknesses.
Easy children adapt quickly to new experiences, and are positive in their moods and emotions. However, it's important to set aside time to address frustrations and disappointments, as these children might not acknowledge feelings that easily.
Cautious children have a low level of activity, and are hesitant around new situations or people. They are keen observers and will thoroughly investigate a new situation before attempting it. Although hesitant at first, these children tend to adapt positively to new experiences upon repeated exposure. It's important for cautious children to stick to routines and to be allowed extra time to establish relationships.
Active children are very emotional, and are easily upset by excess noise and activity. They tend to have intense negative reactions to new situations and are resistant to change. It is important to provide space for vigorous energetic play and to allow some form of free choice.
When looking for a preschool program, it's important to keep in mind what Thomas and Chess termed “goodness of fit”, where the child’s temperament is closely matched to the characteristics of the preschool. Kathy Oliver, a family educator at Ohio State University, points out that it is not only important to consider the preschool curriculum, but the way teachers interact with children. “A child’s ability to develop and behave in acceptable ways is greatly determined by adults in their lives, and how these adults respond to their unique temperaments,” she says.
Parents today have a variety of preschools from which to choose. Here is a run down of four different preschool programs, and how they best serve children of different temperaments.
Most of the work in a Montessori classroom is completed at the individual level, so children of an easy temperament who are able to concentrate for long periods would benefit. “Montessori education is rooted in the belief that education is not something the teacher does, but is a natural process of development,” says Uma Ramani, a Montessori teacher-trainer in Hartford, Connecticut.
With its focus on arts and expression, the Waldorf environment would benefit a child with a difficult temperament who is emotionally sensitive and has a difficult time forming bonds with others. Active children would also respond to the emphasis placed on physical activity. Cautious-minded children would benefit from staying with the same teacher and group of students for the first several years of education. “Temperaments in the Waldorf classroom provide the teacher with tools for forging an inner connection with each child, making the child feel that his or her teacher knows with wisdom what is behind each decision made in the classroom”, says Patrice Maynard, spokesperson for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.
Reggio Emilia is based on emergent curriculum, where the curriculum is developed collaboratively between teachers and students. Emphasis is placed on constructive thinking skills, and the planning and design of projects; it is the process, not the end result, that is important. “In a Reggio classroom the environment is considered the “third teacher”, says Linda Ensko, director of a Reggio Emilia school in Manhattan. Children with an easy temperament might benefit most from the abundance of discoveries and connections that children make in the classroom environment.
Because public school preschools deal with a wide variety of temperaments, where easy children are held up as role models, it's best to establish communication with classroom teachers, and to discuss the temperament of your child if you have any concerns.
So, consider temperament when choosing a preschool; it may just ensure your child's foray into education is a positive experience.