Temperament refers to our in-born (not learned) behavioral style. We all come into the world with a unique set of temperamental characteristics that remain stable throughout our lifetime. These characteristics modulate how we respond to every situation in our lives. Understanding our own temperament as individuals and the temperament of our children is incredibly helpful in being the best we can be and in bringing out the best in our children.
In our experience, understanding the concept of temperament and applying that knowledge to ourselves as parents and spouses and to those around us helps us to better understand behavior…struggles, failures, and successes. In fact, failure to understand a child’s temperament and the role it plays in his behavior and performance can be a major source of frustration for parents.
In our model, there are nine dimensions of temperament and we all fall somewhere along a continuum for each one. The ranges for these continuums are presented in the next section for each temperamental trait. It is important to know that where an individual falls along this continuum for any given temperamental trait is neither good nor bad…it just is! In fact, the same temperamental trait (e.g., being very intense) that is helpful to us in one situation may interfere with our behavior or performance in another.
A key goal should be to understand our temperament and the temperament of the children we live and work with. We need to critically consider how any extreme temperamental traits might be contributing to problems in performance, behavior, or social interaction. When temperamental extremes do interfere with performance, behavior or social interaction, we need to learn how best to work around or control these extremes.
Therefore, when we suspect that an ADD/ADHD child’s or adult’s temperamental characteristics play a role in his failure to meet an expectation at school or work, we know we must develop some type of accommodation to address this contribution.
1. Activity Level refers to the amount of activity from high to low that we engage in throughout our day. Some of us are always moving and physically active; others of us are more sedentary and spend most of our time engaged in quiet activities. The child with a high activity level is likely to be in his element in gym class and playing tag during recess and to have more difficulty staying settled during quiet seated activities; on the other hand, the child with a low activity level might prefer sitting and drawing or reading during free time rather than going outside to play an active game.
2. Rhythmicity refers to the predictability of our daily bodily routines for sleeping, eating and going to the bathroom. It ranges from highly regular to highly irregular. Those of us who are highly rhythmic are hungry, have a bowel movement, and feel sleepy at about the same times every day. Others of us, who are highly irregular do not have a schedule or rhythm at all…our wake-up time varies from day to day; we feel ready for bed at different times and need to go to the bathroom at various, unpredictable times throughout our day. This unpredictability can present a challenge for the child who is asked to adhere to a rigid school schedule where everyone eats and takes bathroom breaks at the same time every day.
3. Threshold of Response refers to the amount of stimulation, ranging from high to low, we require before responding. Those of us with a low threshold require very little to make us happy, sad, angry, etc. Others of us with a high threshold require a lot before we react. The child with a very high threshold may be injured and not seem to notice his pain. At the other extreme, the child with a very low threshold may be bothered by the slightest noise, the frown from the teacher, the tags in clothing, the buzz of the fluorescent lights, the seams in socks, and the taste, texture or smell of food.
4. Frustration Tolerance refers to the level of difficulty we are able to experience before we become frustrated. Frustration tolerance ranges from high to low. Those of us who have a high frustration tolerance are able experience an awful lot of difficulty before we feel frustration. Others of us who have a low frustration tolerance become frustrated very easily. The child with a high frustration tolerance may be able to deal with repeated struggles and failures in the classroom without experiencing significant frustration. The child with a very low frustration tolerance, however, can be quick to experience frustration when asked to perform tasks of only moderate difficulty. This, in turn, sets him up for repeated struggles and can turn into negativity towards school and other learning situations.
5. Intensity of Response refers to the strength of our responses ranging from high tolow. These responses can be demonstrated outwardly or experienced inwardly. So it is not always easy to judge someone’s intensity of response by what we see. Our intensity is independent of the quality (negative or positive) of our response and the immediacy of our response (threshold).
Those of us with a high intensity of response experience or show strong responses. When we are happy we are very, very happy; when we are sad, we are very, very sad; when we are angry, we are very, very angry. Others of us who have a low intensity of response barely show a blip on the screen when our emotions are set off. A child with high intensity may become overly silly at birthday celebrations, rageful during a conflict on the playground, and immobilized with nervousness on math time-tests. On the other hand, the child with low intensity of response may not seem to react at all; she does not experience extreme excitement over a special event or intense disappointment over a failure. In fact, we may find it difficult to read the reactions of a child with low intensity, often misjudging low intensity for not caring.
It is important to remember that when observing for intensity of response, we can’t always judge the book by looking at the cover; some very intense people experience all their intensity internally; nail-biting, skin-picking, complaints of a tightness in one’s chest, stomachaches, jaw aches, or headaches, etc., may be our only clues to what is going on inside.
High intensity of response (externally or internally) is a very powerful temperamental trait. When present, it can rule over everything: good thinking, paying attention, proper self-control, and appropriate social skills to name a few. Failure to identify a high intensity response pattern and appropriately accommodate for it can, inadvertently, set a child up for turning to a variety of other dysfunctional behaviors in an attempt to cope with her strong reactions including such things as over-eating, drug use, and developing an “I don’t care” attitude.
6. Mood refers to the overall quality of emotion throughout the day ranging from very positive to very negative. Those of us with positive mood spend the greater portion of our day in a pleasant mood; we are likely to put a positive spin on everything; problems are challenges. Others of us with a negative mood may seem more critical throughout our day; we are likely to see the glass as half empty. A child with positive mood is generally pleasant in the classroom and may even struggle to recognize when difficulties are present or percolating. The child with negative mood is likely to respond with frown, a headshake, or critical comment to most anyone or anything.
7. Approach-Withdrawal refers to our initial response to new persons, places, events, and ideas ranging from highly approach to highly withdrawal. Those of us who are highly approach readily jump into attempting new tasks, meeting new people, and trying new foods. Others of us who are highly withdrawal resist trying a new activity, avoid attending a party with strangers, and step back from a different kind of food. The child who is highly approach will not hesitate to start a conversation with a new student or teacher, jump into new activities and embrace new concepts and academic challenges. The child who is highly withdrawal may struggle with new students, avoid new playground activities, and step back from an unfamiliar concept in the classroom.
8. Adaptability refers to the amount of time and effort it takes to adapt or accommodate to a new person, situation, or concept after our initial approach or withdrawal response. This can range from easy (highly adaptable) to very slow (non-adaptable). Those of us who are highly adaptable easily integrate new routines, expectations, and concepts into our life. Those of us who are slow to adapt struggle tremendously with these same changes. In the classroom, the child who is highly adaptable readily goes with the flow regardless of the changes in his day, such as routines, class structures, and rules. The child who is slow to adapt may require an extended time to get into the flow at the beginning of each school year, struggle with changing expectations, buck new rules, and resist changes in routines. This same child may seem slow to understand and integrate new concepts that are presented even when they are in sync with his ability level.
9. Persistence refers to how long we stick with tasks regardless of their difficulty ranging from very long to very short. Some of us are highly persistent even in the face of tremendous difficulty; we keep going and going and going. Others of us spend only a short time on a challenging task before giving up and moving on to something else. The child with long persistence resists giving up and will practice a task repeatedly until he has mastered it. This same child may struggle to stop an activity when it is time to move on if he has not yet mastered or completed it. The child with short persistence may stop practice before mastery, struggle to stick with longer, more complex tasks, and be ready to put down a challenging book long before the last page.
A Final Word about Temperament
Each of our temperamental traits is important and plays a significant role in shaping who we are, how we behave, and how we experience and respond to the world around us. While we have defined and discussed these traits individually, it is important to remember that in the real world these traits do not exist in isolation; they interact with each other to influence our behavior in a complex way. Subtle differences in temperamental profiles can result in dramatic differences in how they present themselves in our homes and classrooms.
For example, a child with a negative mood, long persistence, slow adaptability, low frustration tolerance, and high intensity of reaction may be very difficult to work with when this set of characteristics interact with each other to result in frequent, very big negative reactions that last a long time in response to the inevitable changes and challenges that occur every day in the classroom.
On the other hand, a different child with a very similar profile including a negative mood, long persistence, slow adaptability, low frustration tolerance, but a low intensity of reaction may be much less difficult to work with. This is because his low intensity of reaction means his frequent, negative reactions to the changes and challenges in the classroom will be milder and, even if they do persist, their small magnitude may not register on anyone’s radar.
Therefore, as we examine a child’s temperamental profile, it is important to look closely at each trait separately and then consider how each of these individual traits may interact with the others to shape the behavior and personality we are observing.
We’d like to share a quick worksheet to help you apply the 9 Temperament Traits to yourself or a loved one. Download: 9 TEMPERAMENT TRAITS WORKSHEET. Where do you fall on the spectrum? Your spouse? Your children?