A caregiver's guide to understanding temperament

How often have you heard a child described as “easy” or “difficult” or “shy until you get to know her?”

These casual labels all refer to characteristics of temperament, those traits that influence how the child reacts in various situations. Researchers have described nine temperament traits which individually, or in combination, affect how well the child fits in at school, with peers, and even at home. Temperament influences how teachers, peers, and family relate to her, as well as how she relates to them. The child's temperament directly affects how she approaches her school work and chores at home.
When a child's natural behavior doesn't fit with what is expected, social, family, or academic problems may arise. For a child with an identified learning disability (LD) or behavior issues, her particular temperament may help her achieve success more easily or it may compound her difficulties.

Behaviors for each temperament trait described below fall along a continuum. Responses toward either the high or low end - while still completely normal - may be cause for concern.

Effects on The child

Extremes on each continuum of traits are not likely to guarantee success or failure in all situations; somewhere in the middle gives the child flexibility to adjust to a variety of conditions and expectations at school, at home, and in the community. Consider that some combinations of traits can be more troublesome or more beneficial in school than others. High persistence can help the distractible student stay on task, whereas high distractibility combined with high activity and low persistence are strongly correlated to academic problems and bear a striking resemblance to the characteristics of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD).

Understanding the behavior traits of the child with LD or AD/HD helps you predict how she is likely to react in various situations. Are those traits liable to enhance her performance or cause additional problems for her? For example, auditory processing difficulties may be aggravated by low sensitivity; memory problems may be intensified by high distractibility. High persistence and low distractibility, on the other hand, tend to benefit most kids - with or without LD or AD/HD.

Tips for Managing the Extremes

Here are some tips for helping the child modify the traits that might be problematic for her.

Activity Level

For the child with very high energy:
  • Heed the signals that indicate it's time for the child to blow off steam, and find a way to let her do so.
  • Incorporate some active time during the day. Walk to school instead of driving, or stop at the park on the way to go grocery shopping.
  • Avoid using confinement as a method of discipline.
For the child with very low energy:
  • Allow enough time for tasks and activities.
  • Use a timer to set a goal for when a chore should be finished.
  • Reward the child for sticking with a project and completing it in a timely fashion.


For the child who shows high sensitivity:
  • Acknowledge the child's feelings and provide ways for her to make herself more comfortable.
  • Layer clothes to allow for adjustments on days that are too warm or too cold.
  • Avoid over-stimulation, e.g., loud music, strobe lights, noisy groups of people.

For the child who shows low sensitivity:
  • Help her notice external cues by pointing out sounds in the environment, odors, and changes in the colors of stoplights.
  • Explain interpersonal cues, such as facial expressions, body language, personal space.


For the child who demonstrates high predictability:
  • Provide advance warning of changes in routine.
  • Help her learn to handle changes now to develop flexibility as she gets older.
For the child who shows low predictability:
  • Create routines, even if they seem odd. Ask her to sit down with the family for dinner even if she's not hungry or go to bed at a regular time even if she's not sleepy.
  • Reward successes, such as turning in a paper on time.


For the child who approaches new situations easily:
  • Provide firm rules and close supervision. This child is curious!
  • Teach her to use reasonable caution with new people or in new situations.
For the child who withdraws:
  • Allow time to adjust to new situations; let her set the pace.
  • Quietly encourage her, without pushing, to try new activities and make new friends.


For the child who is slow to adapt:
  • Give plenty of warning about transitions.
  • Role play or practice expected behaviors before going into new situations.
  • Acknowledge the stress she feels in new situations and encourage her to talk about it.
For the child who adapts too easily:
  • Teach her to make her own decisions rather than just go along with her peer group.
  • Encourage her to find out all she can about an activity before signing up and committing her time.


For the child who tends to be negative:
  • Try to ignore her general negative mood, but tune in to real distress.
  • Encourage her to recognize and talk about the things that make her happy.
  • Act as a role model for positive social interactions.

For the child who's always positive:
  • Be sensitive to subtle signs of unhappiness that she may be bottling up inside.
  • Teach appropriate ways to express feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and frustration.


For the child who is less responsive:
  • Don't equate a lack of intensity with lack of feelings.
  • Watch and listen carefully to pick up more subtle clues to problems.
For the child who is overly responsive:
  • Teach her to control her emotional responses through anger management, self-talk, or calming strategies.


For the child who shows low persistence:
  • Break tasks into small steps, and acknowledge small successes.
  • Try timed work periods followed by short breaks.
  • Reward her for sustained effort and finished assignments.
For the child who is overly persistent:
  • Provide lots of warning before transitions.
  • Remind him that it's not always possible to be perfect.


For the child who is highly distractible:
  • Reduce external distractions as much as possible.
  • Keep instructions short.
  • Use a special cue - gesture or word - to remind her to get back on task.
For the child who shows low distractibility:
  • Cue her when it's time to move on to something new, e.g., say her name or touch her arm.
  • Set a timer to remind her when to move on to the next task or activity.

Appreciate Your Whole Child
No matter what the child's temperament, show respect and understanding; let her know you accept her the way she is. Her temperament traits combine to make her the very unique and special individual she is.

Remember that some traits seen as challenging in kids are valued later. The extremely open and approaching child becomes an adventurous and exploring adult who makes new discoveries. And the child with high energy and persistence could become the next Olympic gold medal winner!


  1. It will get worse before it gets better. Expect escalation of the inappropriate behavior.
  2. Set the limits and be consistent upfront. You are building a relationship.
  3. 95% of the behavior change comes from the adult.
  4. Remain emotionally detached during behavioral incidences, especially with adult attention seeking children.
  5. Refrain from engaging in conversations with the child that contain rationalizations and explanations of expectations. Teach and practice expected behavior in advance and warnings become unnecessary.

Funding for this program provided by the Department of Health and Human Services