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To Do Today: Thinking about Temperament

Kim Haynes


To Do Today: Thinking about Temperament in the ClassroomWhat is temperament?

Temperament shapes how a person responds to the world. Psychologists today believe that temperament is, to some extent, genetic. In other words, when a child is born, he is already inclined to react in certain ways to certain situations or stimuli. Temperament can be detected within a child’s first year, and while parenting and life experiences will affect the temperament, some part of it will remain the same throughout the child’s life.

Why does this matter in the classroom?

All teachers have those students they just “click” with. They like you, you like them, and you never have problems with them, even if other teachers do. And all teachers have those students who, no matter what you try, you just can’t seem to reach. In both cases, temperament – yours and the student’s – may be part of that equation. By understanding your own temperament and making an effort to understand your students’, you can work towards a happier, smoother-running classroom.


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You may already be familiar with the concept of introversion/extraversion. There are many different ways to explain this theory, and whole books have been written on the subject. Ask yourself this question: where do I draw my energy from? After you go to a crowded cocktail party, are you likely to feel energized or exhausted? If you spend a day home alone, will you feel satisfied or stir crazy? Introverts generally draw their energy from within; if they spend a lot of time with a large group of people, they usually need time to recover. Extraverts draw their energy from interacting with other people; they will be happy after a day of engaging with others but are likely to feel dissatisfied or restless after limited social contact.

What This Means for You and Your Students

If you are an introvert, being a teacher can be a challenge. You need to build time into your day to recoup your energies. Stay in your classroom at lunch, instead of chatting in the teacher’s lounge. Come in early to spend a few minutes in the classroom before it’s crowded with kids. By taking that time to gather up your energy, you may find you can be more patient or enthusiastic in the classroom.

For your students, keep in mind that introverts are not necessarily shy. Some students may feel more comfortable working alone or taking time to think over their response rather than shouting it out. These kids need to learn how to work in groups, of course, just as the social chatty students need to learn to work on their own. Try to offer a variety of activities – don’t always do group work, and don’t always make kids work alone – to reach both the introverts and extraverts in your class.

 “Spirited” and “Highly Sensitive” Children

Psychologists have identified a range of temperament traits, which can be identified early in a child’s life. Key traits include:

·       Intensity: how strongly the child reacts to something

·       Persistence: how long the child pursues something in spite of obstacles

·       Distractibility: how easily the child can be distracted

·       Adaptability: how quickly the child adjusts to a new or unexpected situation

·       Regularity: how predictable the child’s physical needs (food, sleep, etc.) are

·       Activity Level/Energy: how active the child is

·       Sensitivity: how much the child is bothered by external stimuli (noises, textures, bright lights, etc.)

Children who exhibit many of these traits are labeled as “difficult temperament” by psychologists, while some prefer the label “spirited.” In some cases, children with these traits may be demonstrating signs of ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or other issues, but many of them are perfectly healthy children who do not need to be medicated, but may need additional instructions or guidance about their behavior. A spirited child may be your worst nightmare, or a spirited child could be that lively and intelligent kid who really makes it fun to teach.

Psychologist Elaine Aron suggests that approximately 15-20% of the population could be classified as “highly sensitive,” meaning these people are more attuned to stimuli, both external (the noise at the back of the classroom) and internal (how frustrated you are that your principal wants that paperwork completed by the end of the day). Highly sensitive children may get frightened more easily, withdraw from new situations, be more upset by negative interactions with classmates, or be more concerned about their success in school. These aren’t likely to be your “act up in class” problem students, but they can also benefit from careful attention and understanding.

What This Means for You and Your Students

Keep in mind that there are spirited and highly sensitive adults and you may be one. Understanding your own temperament can help you be more effective in the classroom and recognize what your “buttons” are before they get pushed by a rambunctious or stubborn student.

Consider taking time to talk to your students and/or their parents about temperament. Many spirited or sensitive kids (and their parents) are tired of having these issues overlooked or misunderstood. They can be defensive or simply unaware of the research. By showing them that you’re up to date on this topic, they know you can be an ally. If there are modifications you can allow in your classroom, use them. For example, on a rainy day, all students might benefit from an activity that lets them move around the room instead of sitting still, but your high-activity-level spirited kids will really benefit. Setting guidelines for a classroom discussion about a sad or controversial topic is healthy for all kids, but will be especially important for the highly sensitive ones.

One thing to keep in mind: many researchers who have studied sensitive children, spirited children, and introverted children emphasize that these are often kids who can grow up to do amazing and important things in the world, given the right support in their childhood. They may take a little extra effort, but you could be amazed by the results!


·       If you want to learn more about introverts and extraverts, check out Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, or visit her website.

·       If you want to learn more about spirited children, check out Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book, Raising the Spirited Child, or visit her website.

·       If you want to learn more about highly sensitive children, check out Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child, or visit her website.