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It's Normal to be Different
Rod Teeple, June 1998

Parents and teachers for generations have known that every child is unique. New parents are often told that they only need to have two children in order to realize how very different siblings can be in their reactions and responses to the world. During the past forty years, psychologists, pediatricians and other child development experts have developed a name for these individual differences: temperament. Based on these decades of research, it has been demonstrated scientifically that it is normal to be different.

Based on interviews and observations of parents beginning at birth, nine dimensions have been identified as contributing to the way that a child approaches and interacts with the world, beginning soon after birth and continuing for perhaps a lifetime. Many researchers believe that these traits are biological in nature. Over time, however, a child learns to modify his or her own behavior to match expectations. Behaviors related to temperament also can have the effect of changing a child's environment. Understanding temperament is important because it provides a background for developing better matches between a child and his or her environment.

These nine dimensions are often perceived as a continuum. Children can express a give characteristic in the high range, low range, or at a level in between.


Activity Level

Even before birth, many parents report differences in the characteristic levels of physical movement that children express.

Persistence

Children vary widely in their ability to stick to a task or activity without interruption. Valued when the activity is constructive, persistence can become a nuisance for a child who is engaging in negative behaviors.

Distractibility

This trait refers to a child's ability to maintain an activity in the presence of competing sounds or sights. Distractibility is useful when it allows a teacher or care giver to interrupt a child's negative behavior. It is less desirable when it interferes with a child's attention to learning tasks.

Initial Reaction

Children often respond to new situations with some degree of either approach or withdrawal.

Adaptability

After the initial reaction to a new situation, a child has a speed of adaptation to the new environment. Transitions take place quickly for some children. Others require a longer period to get used to a change.

Mood

Typical emotional expressions range from positive to negative. Some children have bright and sunny dispositions. Others do not.

Intensity

The amount of energy used to demonstrate emotions is referred to as intensity. A child with high intensity throws a raging tantrum when he or she is angry. A child with low intensity whimpers softly.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity describes reactions to information from the senses. Sensitive children often complain about rough clothing, the tastes of food, or are easily overwhelmed by sights and sounds. These same sensations do not bother a child with low sensitivity.

Regularity

The day to day consistency or inconsistency of basic biological patters of eating, resting and elimination make up a child's pattern of regularity. High regularity results in a child who is predictable. Children with low regularity require more flexibility in their schedules.


Several combinations of frequently occurring traits have been identified into three main clusters, often characterized as the "easy child," the "slow to warm up child," and the "difficult child."

The so-called easy child demonstrates regularity of rhythms from an early age. Sleeping, eating and toileting occur at relatively predictable intervals day after day. Children with this temperament respond positively to change, adapt easily to new routines and are generally outgoing and positive in mood. Both intensity and energy level tend toward medium or even low levels. As children like this enter school, they are often viewed by teachers as the proverbial "joy to have in class." Children with this temperament also make up approximately 40 percent of all children, the largest single group identified on the basis of temperament.

The slow to warm up child is less positive in his or her initial reaction to change. New situations are withdrawn from, and adaptation to new routines is achieved more slowly, often preceded by a period of emotional upset. Emotional intensity, however, is mild, as is general activity level. As a result, slow to warm up children react to change with anxiety or crying, rather than becoming disruptive. With patience and support, children dealing with this kind of temperament will make a smooth transition. Slow to warm up children make up 15 percent of children.

The difficult (sometimes called spirited) child is named because he or she may present greater challenges to parents and teachers. Children with this temperament also react to changes with withdrawal and slow adaptation. Emotional intensity, however, is high. Combined with a generally negative mood, this is results in a child who reacts disruptively to even mild changes in routine or environment. Patience and support must be combined with a firm, consistent set of rules and expectations to help ease children into new setting. Some estimates suggest that difficult children make up at least 10 percent of the child population.

It is important to recognize that these three clusters are general categories. A range of variation occurs within each category, just as there are differences between each category. Thirty-five percent of children are considered to have "average" temperament, because they do not fit a category at all. They are neither characteristically difficult, easy or slow to warm up, but may exhibit any of these characteristics periodically, if change or stress is severe or prolonged enough.


What Can School Psychologists Do?

As mental health professionals working within the school setting, school psychologists are in a good position to help differentiate normal variations in temperament from more serious psychological conditions. Some within the medical community believe that poorly identified characteristics of temperament (such as high activity level, low persistence, high distractibility) may often be misunderstood and misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), a condition that sometimes requires medication for proper treatment (Carey, 1997. pp. 151 - 159). An analysis of the goodness of fit between a child's individual temperament and the environment(s) in which conflict occurs, can assist with planning interventions to produce a better match. The spring gardener knows that particular varieties of seeds do better in particular kinds of climates, soils and sunlight. Children too may be found to thrive in some environments, while they develop ever greater conflicts in those that do no match their particular style.

What Can Parents Do?

As any child's primary advocate, parents can expect that individual differences between children are given consideration when a difficulty is identified. Slow to warm up children do better in a supportive environment that allows them to accept new people, places or tasks more slowly. Flexibility is important. This can be as true for dealing with a new teacher each fall as it is for changes in the curriculum throughout the year, such as moving from multiplication to division. Difficult children, on the other hand, may respond better to more concrete, rigid rules that are consistently enforced. Too much flexibility may add to the difficulties that are arising with a child of difficult temperament.

A parent's observations of reactions over the lifetime of the child, from infancy on, can provide school personnel with invaluable information regarding how a student has successfully dealt with new challenges in the past. These past successes often hold the key to dealing with a similar situation in the present and the future.

What Can Teachers Do?

Building a professional awareness of the interaction between temperament and classroom functioning is very helpful in dealing with the needs of individual children. Some children need firm consistency in rules. Others need time and understanding. The academic difficulties of easy children can be overlooked because the students work hard without complaining, even when the curriculum becomes far too challenging for their skills. Understanding that it is normal to be different can help teachers to avoid unnecessary labels for children and work with parents to develop a good match between the needs of children and their environment.

What Can Administrators Do?

Issues involving conflict between a child's temperament and the school environment sometimes result in referrals for behavior as well as poor academic performance. Principals can often be in the position of looking into various kinds of classroom difficulties and beginning to sort out how well the particular environmental strategies which are currently being employed match the needs of an individual child. Obviously, the long term goal of working with a child is to help him or her to be able to function successfully in a variety of settings. Often, the first step toward realizing that goal is to arrange an environment that allows a child to meet with success in the first place.


Sources for Further Reading

Carey, W. B. (1997). Understanding your child's temperament. Simon & Schuster Macmillan. New York: NY.
An excellent source of information for parents or anyone wanting a basic overview of research, theory and practice related to temperament.

Chess, S. & Thomas, A. (1998). Temperament: theory and practice. Brunner/Mazel. New York: NY.
An historical account from the originators of the field of temperament research, combined with practical guidelines and procedures for current practitioners.

On the World Wide Web: http://www.temperament.com
A web site providing a good deal of background, information, links to other sites, and references for further reading. The site is sponsored by B-DI, a test publisher that produces several questionnaires and rating scales for assessing temperament. As a result, the marketing team presents a strong bias for using specialized tests to assess temperament. The factual information, however, is current.

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