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.

Parents’ Influences

Through the many things they do—and don’t do—each day, parents can have a significant impact on children’s personalities. Here we’ll focus on three aspects of parent–child relationships that seem to be especially influential: attachment, parenting styles, and child maltreatment.

Attachment  Many parents and other important family members (e.g., grandparents, older siblings) lovingly interact with a new infant and consistently and dependably provide for the infant’s physical and psychological needs. When they do such things, a strong, affectionate caregiver–child bond known as attachment typically forms (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, Wall, 1978).

Infants who become closely attached to parents or other caregivers early in life are apt to develop into amiable, independent, self-confident children who adjust easily to the classroom environment, establish productive relationships with teachers and peers, and have an inner conscience that guides their behavior. In contrast, youngsters who do not become closely attached to a parent or some other individual early in life can be immature, dependent, unpopular, and prone to disruptive and aggressive behaviors later on (Hartup, 1989; Kochanska, Aksan, Knaack, & Rhines, 2004; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005; S. Shulman, Elicker, & Sroufe, 1994; Sroufe, Carlson, & Shulman, 1993).

Attachment to a parent or other adult caregiver remains important even in adolescence. Most adolescents continue to see their relationships with parents and other family members as important and valuable throughout the secondary school grades (J. P. Allen, McElhaney, Kuperminc, & Jodl, 2004; R. M. Lerner, 2002; Nestemann & Hurrelmann, 1994). Although teenagers often disagree with their parents, those who are well-adjusted tend to do so within the context of an affectionate, supportive parent–child relationship (J. P. Allen et al., 2003).

Parenting Styles Researchers have discovered that many parents exhibit somewhat consistent patterns of behavior in rearing their children. Differing parenting styles are associated with different behaviors and personality traits in children (Baumrind, 1971, 1989, 1991; Maccoby & Martin, 1983).

The ideal situation for most children is authoritative parenting.   Parents using this style provide a loving and supportive home, hold high expectations and standards for performance, explain why behaviors are or are not acceptable, enforce household rules consistently, include children in decision making, and provide age-appropriate opportunities for independence. Children from authoritative homes are happy, energetic, confident, and self-reliant. They make friends easily, have good social skills, and show concern for others’ rights and needs. They are motivated to do well in school and, as a result, are often high achievers. Authoritative parenting provides a good model for how, as teachers, we should generally run our classrooms (J. M. T. Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2006).

It is important to note here that most research on parenting involves correlational studies that reveal associations between parents’ behaviors and children’s characteristics but do not necessarily demonstrate cause-and-effect relationships. A few experimental studies have documented that specific parenting styles probably do influence children’s personalities to some degree (W. A. Collins et al., 2000). In other cases, however, parents’ disciplinary strategies seem to be the result, rather than the cause, of how children behave. For instance, temperamentally lively or adventuresome children typically require more parental control than quieter, restrained ones (J. R. Harris, 1998; Jaffee et al., 2004; Stice & Barrera, 1995).

Children of authoritative parents appear well-adjusted, in part because their behaviors are considered ideal by many people in Western cultures: They listen respectfully to others, can follow rules by the time they reach school age, try to be independent, and strive for academic achievement. But authoritative parenting is not universally best; other parenting styles may be better suited to particular cultures. For example, children of very controlling (and so apparently authoritarian) Asian American parents often do quite well in school. In many Asian American families high demands for obedience are made within the context of a loving, supportive mother–child relationship. Furthermore, principles of Confucianism teach children that parents are always right and that obedience and emotional restraint are essential for family harmony (Chao, 1994, 2001; Lin & Fu, 1990).

Impoverished economic conditions, too, may require authoritarian parenting. In low-income, inner-city neighborhoods where danger may lurk around every corner, parents may better serve their children by being very strict and directive about activities (Hale-Benson, 1986; McLoyd, 1998). In addition, the stresses of impoverished financial resources can become so overwhelming that they limit parents’ ability to solicit children’s ideas about family rules (Bronfenbrenner, Alvarez, & Henderson, 1984). Communicating high standards for behavior and negotiating with children about seemingly unfair rules can take considerable time and energy—perhaps more time and energy than very stressful circumstances allow.

As teachers, we must take care not to point accusatory fingers or in other ways be judgmental about how parents are bringing up their children. Some parents may have learned ineffective parenting strategies from their own parents. Others may have challenges in their lives—perhaps mental illness, marital conflict, or serious financial problems—that hamper their ability to nurture and support their children. And of course, nonauthoritative styles may sometimes be culturally adaptive. Although we can certainly serve as valuable sources of information about effective disciplinary techniques, we must be careful that we don’t give total credit to or place total blame on parents for how they interact with their children.

In any event, parenting styles seem to have only a moderate (rather than a strong) influence on children’s personalities (W. A. Collins et al., 2000; Weiss & Schwarz, 1996). Many children thrive despite their parents’ less-than-optimal parenting styles, provided that their homes aren’t severely neglectful or abusive (J. R. Harris, 1995, 1998; Lykken, 1997; Scarr, 1992). Children with certain temperaments—for instance, those who tend to be adaptable, persistent, and outgoing—seem to be especially resilient in the face of difficult family circumstances (D. Hart, Atkins, & Fegley, 2003; Keogh, 2003).

Child Maltreatment In a few unfortunate instances, parents’ behaviors toward their children constitute child maltreatment. In some cases parents neglect children: They fail to provide nutritious meals, adequate clothing, and other basic necessities of life. In other cases parents (or possibly other family members) abuse children physically, sexually, or emotionally. Possible indicators of neglect or abuse are chronic hunger, lack of warm clothing in cold weather, untreated medical needs, frequent or serious physical injuries (e.g., bruises, burns, broken bones), and exceptional knowledge about sexual matters (Turnbull et al., 2007).

Parental neglect and abuse have significant adverse effects on children’s personal and social development. On average, children who have been routinely neglected or abused have low self-esteem, poorly developed social skills, and low school achievement. Many are angry, aggressive, and defiant. Others can be depressed, anxious, socially withdrawn, and possibly suicidal (Dodge, Pettit, Bates, & Valente, 1995; Maughan & Cicchetti, 2002; Nix et al., 1999; R. A. Thompson & Wyatt, 1999).

Teachers are both morally and legally obligated to report any cases of suspected child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities (e.g., the school principal or child protective services). Two helpful resources are the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) and the Web site for Childhelp USA at www.childhelpusa.org.

Common Parenting Styles

When Parents Exhibit This Parenting Style... Children tend to be...


  • Providing a loving, supportive home environment
  • Holding high expectations and standards for children’s behavior
  • Explaining why some behaviors are acceptable and others are not
  • Enforcing household rules consistently
  • Including children in family decision making
  • Gradually loosening restrictions as children become capable of greater responsibility and independence
  • Happy
  • Self-confident
  • Curious
  • Independent and self-reliant
  • Capable of considerable self-control
  • Likable, with effective social skills
  • Respectful of others' needs
  • Motivated and successful in school


  • Conveying less emotional warmth than authoritative parents
  • Holding high expectations and standards for children’s behavior
  • Establishing rules of behavior without regard for children’s needs
  • Expecting rules to be obeyed without question
  • Allowing little give-and-take in parent–child discussions
  • Unhappy
  • Anxious
  • Low in self-confidence
  • Lacking initiative
  • Dependent on others
  • Lacking in social skills and prosocial behaviors
  • Coercive in dealing with others
  • Defiant


  • Providing a loving, supportive home environment
  • Holding few expectations or standards for children’s behavior
  • Rarely punishing inappropriate behavior
  • Allowing children to make many of their own decisions (e.g., about eating, bedtime)
  •  Selfish
  • Unmotivated
  • Dependent on others
  • Demanding of attention
  • Disobedient
  • Impulsive


  • Providing little, if any, emotional support for children
  • Holding few expectations or standards for children’s behavior
  • Showing little interest in children’s lives
  • Seeming to be overwhelmed by self-focused personal problems
  • Disobedient
  • Demanding
  • Low in self-control
  • Difficulty handling frustration
  • Lacking long-term goals

Sources: Baumrind, 1971, 1989; W. A. Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000; Dekovic & Janssens, 1992; Gonzalez & Wolters, 2005; Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; L. S. Miller, 1995; Paris, Morrison, & Miller, 2006; Rohner, 1998; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Conger, 1991; L. Steinberg, 1993; L. Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989; J. M. T. Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2006.

Cultural Expectations and Socialization

As we’ve seen, cultural groups can influence children’s personalities through the parenting styles they encourage. But culture also has a more direct influence on children’s personal and social development through a process known as socialization. That is, members of a cultural group work hard to help growing children adopt the behaviors and beliefs that the group holds dear. Children typically learn their earliest lessons about their culture’s standards and expectations for behavior from parents and other family members, who teach them personal hygiene, rudimentary manners (e.g., saying please and thank you), and so on. Once children reach school age, teachers become equally important socialization agents. For example, in mainstream Western society, teachers typically expect and encourage a variety of specific behaviors—showing respect for authority figures, following instructions, working independently, asking for help when it’s needed, controlling impulses, and so on (Helton & Oakland, 1977; R. D. Hess & Holloway, 1984). Cultures around the globe encourage many of these behaviors, but they don’t necessarily endorse all of them. As an example, let’s return to the opening case study. Recall how Lupita sits quietly in class, apparently even when she might need help with an assigned task. Many Mexican immigrants are more accustomed to observing events quietly and unobtrusively than to asking adults for explanations. Recall, too, that Lupita willingly abandons her own projects to play with one classmate and assist two others with puzzles. On average, children of Mexican heritage feel more comfortable working cooperatively with peers rather than independently.

Researchers have observed other cultural differences in personal and social characteristics as well. For instance, European American families often encourage assertiveness and independence, but families from many other countries (e.g., Mexico, China, Japan, India) encourage restraint, obedience, and deference to elders (Chao, 1994; Goodnow, 1992; Joshi & MacLean, 1994; Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000). And whereas many children in China are reared to be shy, many in Zambia are reared to smile and be outgoing(X. Chen, Rubin, & Sun, 1992; Hale-Benson, 1986; D. Y. F. Ho, 1986, 1994). But considerable diversity exists within a culture, with different parents, teachers, and other adults encouraging somewhat different behaviors and beliefs.

When behaviors expected of students at school differ from those expected at home, or when belief systems presented by teachers are inconsistent with those of children’s parents, children may initially experience some culture shock. At a minimum, children are apt to be confused and less productive than they might be otherwise, at least in the first few days or weeks of school. Some youngsters with less adaptable or more irritable temperaments may even become angry or resistant (R. D. Hess & Holloway, 1984; Kumar, Gheen, & Kaplan, 2002).

As teachers, we must especially encourage our students to exhibit those behaviors essential for long-term school success, such as obeying school rules, following instructions, and working independently. For example, when we expect students to work independently, even those students who have not had this expectation placed on them at home show improved work habits (J. L. Epstein, 1983). At the same time, students will need our guidance, support, and patience when our expectations differ from those of their family or cultural group.