Making sense of child temperament

Published on Tuesday, 02 June 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Have you ever wondered why children respond differently to the same event? In an early childhood service you are likely to witness myriad responses to an event such as a fire alarm or a power cut. Responses could range from fearful, to excited to anxious, to calm and accepting.

A child’s response to an event, in part, comes down to their individual temperament (upbringing and environment may also weigh in) and understanding the different temperaments of the children in a service can greatly improve the running of a room and the education and play opportunities available to children.

According to Raising Children, temperament is simply the way children respond to the world. A child’s temperament can be measured by how much he or she displays these three qualities:

  • Reactivity: this is how strongly children react to things like exciting events or not getting their own way. Reactive children tend to feel things strongly.
  • Self-regulation: this is how much children can control their behaviour, including the way they show their feelings. It’s also about how much children can control their attention and how persistent they are.
  • Sociability: this is how comfortable children are when they meet new people or have new experiences.

Temperament is shaped by our biology as well as our experiences. In other words, a child may be predisposed to respond to an event a certain way, but how they respond is also influenced by past events and how people around the child have reacted to their response.

It’s important for teachers to understand this because it means that while a child may struggle in some situations due to a biological predisposition, teachers can still support the child, encourage self-regulation skills, and help them respond to specific situations in more appropriate ways. 

Does temperament matter?

A growing body of research has established links between individual temperament in early childhood and later academic, behavioural, social and emotional outcomes, for example, shy children may be more inclined to become anxious adults. For this reason it is important for educators to be able to recognise and support children with a variety of temperaments.

Goodness of fit

Early childhood teachers can support the different temperaments of the children through an approach called “goodness-of-fit”. The goodness-of-fit theory suggests that in a relationship between an adult and a child, it is the adult’s responsibility to adjust to the temperament needs of the child. 

Goodness of fit happens when an adult changes their expectations and practices to support the unique temperament, needs and abilities of a child. The theory suggests that in time and with consistent support and reinforcement a child can learn to manage his or her own temperament and adjust to the demands of daily life.

You can observe children to try and learn about their temperament and it may also be helpful to talk to whanau and carers, as some children behave differently at home. Importantly, children from the same family may have different temperaments and it’s important to bear this in mind when engaging with siblings.

The benefits of  establishing goodness of fit with the children in an early childhood service may include greater acceptance of the differences, increased likelihood of avoiding problems and conflicts if you can anticipate how a child may react, more respectful relationships and healthy development of children.

Working towards goodness of fit

Consider the following as you work to achieve goodness of fit with the children in your early childhood centre:

Engage with families by asking questions about their infant or toddler, such as the following:

  • How does your child respond to new experiences, such as unfamiliar house guests or going somewhere for the first time?
  • Are your child’s sleeping, eating, and toileting routines predictable or do they vary from day to day?
  • How does your child explore? Does he or she tend to get right in the middle of the action or prefer to watch from a distance for a while?

How does the early childhood environment support different children’s temperaments?

  • Do children have free access to places where they can be active and busy, and separate spaces to be quiet and still?
  • How might noise levels, bright lights, and room temperature affect each child?
  • How do the spaces for routine care, such as meals and diapering, allow for choices? For example, can a toddler safely climb onto the changing table by herself?
  • Can an infant be held on a lap for a meal or sit in a small chair at a table?

How might the daily schedule support different children’s temperaments?

  • Is there plenty of free time for exploration and play, allowing children to follow their interests at their own pace?
  • Do you build in one-on-one time with each infant or toddler to reconnect and be together in a way that works best for each child?
  • Can each child eat when she is hungry and sleep when she is tired? Are you paying attention to how these needs change as children develop?
  • Are transitions—such as from meals to resting, or from outside to inside—predictable and planned in a way that allows each child to adjust to the upcoming change?
  • Is there a balance of indoor and outdoor time in the daily schedule, or free access between indoors and outdoors when weather allows?

How might your temperament, expectations, speech, and actions affect each child and the group as a whole?

  • Do you speak loudly or quietly?
  • Do you prefer to be active or quiet?
  • Are you comfortable with predictable routines or do you prefer changing things to make the day more fun?
  • Which children do you find easier to care for and how might that be related to the natural fit of your temperaments?
  • Are there infants and toddlers in your care who need you to adjust your own style? For example, if you tend to be active, is there a child who responds better when you slow down, get quiet, and wait?
  • Do you find ways for an active child to move freely, even if you would rather have her sit near you and read a book?


Penn State Extension: Understanding temperament

Raising Children: Temperament: What it is and Why it Matters

Early Childhood Training and Technical Assistance System: Understanding and adapting to individual temperaments

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