Temperament and Goodness of Fit
I have learnt that getting to know a child’s unique temperament and personality is the first important step for anyone who cares for, or works with children. It is important to understand how the child’s temperament may have been encouraged through his or her unique cultural experiences and also things such as gender stereotypes. In addition, as caregivers, we must be aware of our own values and beliefs, because these will greatly influence our expectations of a child’s behavior. By gaining an understanding of a child’s temperament, we are then more able to nurture his or her emotional intelligence, and guide the child towards “appropriate” behaviors through our positive and nurturing socialization techniques. However, it is also important that we view and respect temperament as a behavioral “style”. This is because sometimes what we see as a child’s “inappropriate” behavior may actually be a part of that child’s unique temperament, and the reason we have labelled it “inappropriate” is simply because it is not akin to our own temperament style. We must, therefore, always be aware of our own expectations of children, and vigilant about the “appropriateness” of these expectations.
In their book, “How to Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So Children Will Talk”, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish discuss how to help children deal with their feelings. They suggest that the first step towards achieving this is to respect and accept a child’s feelings, no matter what those feelings may be. Also, asking children “why” they have behaved in a certain way may prove futile, as often they cannot explain the reasons for their feelings. However, Faber and Mazlish also maintain that acceptance of all feelings does not mean acceptance of all actions. Through our acknowledgement of a child’s feelings, we can, as caregivers, begin to help children understand their feelings and express them in suitable ways.
One of the most challenging things for a caregiver to deal with in any childcare setting is aggressive behavior. However, the label “aggressive behavior” can sometimes be too readily applied, and it is important to employ our understanding of developmental ages and stages in the management of infant aggression. In her article, “Helping Young Children Channel Their Aggression”, found on the Zero to Three website, Sally Provence M.D. maintains that infant aggression is actually “part of healthy development”. For example, infants and toddlers are just beginning to gain awareness of “cause and effect”, and may not understand the consequences of an action. Also, “young children, particularly those under three and a half or so, scarcely know their own strength”. And because infants are only just beginning to learn what is socially acceptable behavior, much patient guidance and many reminders will be needed before they begin to understand consequences and develop self-control.
When I saw a one-year-old pull another’s hair, I realised that this was “inappropriate” behavior, but was it really “aggressive”? In order to respond appropriately to a child’s behavior, and not simply label it as “aggressive”, I have to ask questions. Is the child at an age where he or she really understands cause and effect, i.e. that hair pulling causes someone pain? Has the child reached the stage whereby s/he is aware of being a completely separate person, and is showing intentional behaviors? I could also consider whether the hair pulling was the result of an instant reaction to something, (e.g. was it caused by anger or frustration?) I realise that if we are too ready to label a child’s behavior as “aggressive”, we will then come to expect negative behavior from that child, by seeing it as part of his or her stable and unchanging “temperament”. We will then in fact give testimony to the saying, “What you think of me – I’ll think of me – And what I think of me – I’ll be!” Remembering this helped me with my reaction to the hair pulling. It meant that I did not over-react, but could respond calmly and soothe the infant whose hair had been pulled, and give support to, and model appropriate behavior to the infant who had caused the pain. Because of the child’s age and stage of development it was not appropriate to give the child a lengthy “talking to” or explanation of the outcome of her behavior; although my disapproval of the behavior was immediate, I realised that she was feeling tired and frustrated at the time, and that caring support for both children and suitable distraction techniques were needed.
Helping children to develop socially acceptable, non-aggressive behaviors also involves the application of item #28 of the ITERS, “Attention needs to be given for good behavior…” We can apply this through our use of socialization techniques that emphasise positive language (e.g. “Keep the sand in the sand tray”, rather than, “Don’t throw the sand”). Children are more likely to respond appropriately when given clear, positive instructions. We must then remember to give them attention and praise when their behavior is socially acceptable and appropriate in order to reinforce their learning. If we have a tendency to ignore children when they are “good” and only respond to them when their behavior becomes socially unacceptable, then we are wasting many opportunities to help them develop a caring attitude and to build positive relationships with others. Seeing two children, aged about two years, happily filling each other’s buckets in the sand tray, I responded to them with smiles and praise, saying, “I like the way you are helping each other to fill your buckets”. I tried to keep my language simple and clear, so that they knew the reason why I was pleased.
The practice of primary and continuous care allows caregivers to get to know the temperament styles of the children they work with. In their research on children’s temperament, Chess and Thomas defined three general types of temperament. Becoming aware of these temperament styles has helped me respond in a more constructive way towards different behavior outcomes. For example, it has helped me realise that a child who is avoiding new experiences and seems very timid and fearful, may actually be of the temperament style, “slow to warm up”. By realizing that a child with this temperament needs gentle, consistent encouragement rather than pressure to try new things, or the withdrawal of new things, the caregiver can respond appropriately to this child’s needs. Conversely, a child who has a high activity level, intense reactions and negative moods, along with impatience and a very short attention span, (feisty), will need much patience and support that takes account of this temperament style. It can feel very frustrating for the adult who is trying to work with a feisty child, especially if any activities or events that take place do not allow for this child’s huge energy resource and inability to remain still. I found that by taking account of a feisty child’s temperament, my expectations of that child’s behaviour became more realistic, and therefore I enjoyed working with that child, rather than finding it a completely frustrating and irritating experience. For example, I realized that this child needed considerable amounts of physical play in order to channel his energy in a positive way. The Infant-Toddler Environment Rating Scale #28 holds that “expectations for the children need to be realistic for their ages and abilities…” If we understand that “temperament” also forms part of a child’s “abilities”, then we will be more able to apply the “goodness of fit” model during our interactions with that child.
Faber, A. and Mazlish, E. (1980). How To Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So Children Will Talk. New York: Avon Books.
Provence, S., M.D. (1985). Helping Young Children Channel Their Aggression.
The Infant-Toddler Environment Rating Scale