Grandmother holding grandchildAdults' knowledge, good intentions, and skills are only part of the complex behavior story. Even the most willing adults are sometimes confounded by the nature of a child's reactions to events. The construct of temperament has been helpful for many early childhood professionals in understanding the inborn, biological differences that seem to cause children to have such unique responses to the world. Temperament does not predetermine behavior nor is it an excuse for behavior. However, being alert to temperament can help adults understand why children react to events differently and provide individualized support in regulating those reactions.

Early personality researchers determined nine traits that appear to be biologically based, remain fairly constant over time, and affect a child's reactions to other people and the environment.1 Together, these nine traits are considered key components of the child's temperament:2

  1. Activity level: General level of motor activity (e.g., large and small muscle movement) when one is awake or asleep
  2. Distractibility: Ease with which one can be distracted or, conversely, the level of concentration or focus
  3. Intensity: Energy level of one's emotional response (positive and negative)
  4. Regularity: Predictability of biological functions (e.g., eating, sleeping, etc.)
  5. Sensitivity: Level of response to sensory experiences such as light, sound, textures, smells, and tastes
  6. Approachability: Initial response to new places, situations, or things
  7. Adaptability: Ease in adjusting to changes in routines and other transitions
  8. Persistence: Length of time one continues in activities in the face of obstacles
  9. Mood: Tendency to react to the world primarily in a positive or negative way

The original researchers realized that traits tended to appear in groups, and they called these groupings temperament types. They used the terms flexible, fearful, and feisty. This terminology has evolved over time. According to the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation,3 children who are easygoing (flexible) are generally happy and active children from birth. They adjust easily to new situations and environments and have predictable biological functions, such as eating and sleeping. Children who are slow to warm (fearful) are generally observant, calm, and often need extra time to adjust to new situations. Children with active temperaments (feisty) often have unpredictable biological functions and intense positive and negative reactions; they approach life with passion and enthusiasm.

Active children can be joyous when their caregivers and the environment are responsive to the way they operate. Temperament alone is neither good nor bad, but the match between the child's temperament and the expectations of the environment may or may not serve the child. For example, active, energetic adults might adore and feel "in tune" with an active child. Flexible adults may prefer children who are easygoing or even slow to warm. Adults who are slow-to-warm may sometimes feel overwhelmed by active children with overall high energy and intense emotional responses to situations and people.

1 Thomas, Alexander, Stella Chess, Herbert G. Birch, Margaret E. Hertzig, and Sam Korn, Behavioral Individuality in Early Childhood (New York: New York University Press, 1963).

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Office of Head Start, Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, Introduction to Temperament (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, n.d.).

3 Ibid.