Relationship of Temperament to Preschoolers' Interactions with
Peers and Teachers
Recognition of individual differences in temperament has led to the
consideration of temperament as a possible influence on children's
personal and social experiences. Although researchers from different
fields (e.g., behavioral genetics, and developmental psychology) have
adopted somewhat different definitons of temperament, for educators the
perspective of Thomas and Chess (1977) is particularly useful.
Psychiatrists Thomas and Chess considered temperament as behavioral
style, as the "how" rather than the "why" or the
"what" of behavior. They suggested that temperament is a
contributor to the interactions between parent and child, a view
consistent with the reciprocal-effects interpretation of Bell (1974) and
of Sameroff and Chandler (1975).
The reciprocal-effects interpretation recognizes that children are
not just passive recipients of environmental stimulations, but rather
are active contributors to and influences on their own experiences.
Temperament, in addition to other dimensions of individual differences
such as cognition, contributes to the "goodness of fit"
between children and their environments.
Thomas and Chess (1977) suggested that goodness of fit results when
there is consonance between the child and environment, when the
environment is "in accord with (the child's) capacities,
characteristics, and style of behaving" (p. 11). To date, most
research on temperament and goodness of fit has been focused either on
home and family environments or on psychiatric, pediatric, and
development concerns (see Carey, 1982; Graham, Rutter, & George,
1973; Lerner, R. M., 1982). Several educational researchers, however,
have extended the goodness of fit notion to schools (Hegvik, 1984;
Keogh, 1982, 1986; Keogh & Pullis, 1980; Martin, Nagle, & Paget,
1983). These investigators suggest that interactions between teachers
and children are influenced in part by children's temperamental
attributes. Indeed, temperament, or behavioral style, may be an
individual-difference dimension that influences both personal-social and
academic experiences in schools. Given the potential importance of
behavioral style in children's school experiences, it is surprising
that there has been relatively little research on the topic.
The study of temperament in schools has been limited by two related
problems--definition and measurement. First, researchers have not
agreed on the definition of temperament. For example, Buss and Plomin
(1975, 1984) argued for primary temperaments of Emotionality, Activity,
Sociability, and Impulsivity, whereas Thomas and Chess (1977) proposed
nine termperamental dimensions: Adaptability, Activity Level,
Approach/Withdrawal, Distractibility, Intensity, Mood, Persistence,
Threshold of Response, and Rhythmicity. The nine Thomas and Chess
dimensions may well be represented in the broader Buss and Plomin
categories; yet differnces in conceptualizations lead to differences in
interpretation and operational definitions. A second problem with
research on temperament in schools is measurement. As might be
expected, researchers have developed somewhat different measurement
approaches. Further, there are issues of reliability and construct
validity (Hubert, Wachs, Peters-Martin, & Gandour, 1982), as well as
of appropriateness of items. Many measurement instruments are heavily
weighted with items describing child-parent interactions in the home
(e.g., Carey, 1970; McDevitt & Carey, 1978). In addition, because a
good deal of the research on temperament has focused on infants, many
assessment techniques are inappropriate for older children or for use in
Despite these limitations, research has shown some consistency of
tmperamental variations across settings and over time (Lerner, R. M.,
Palermo, Spiro, & Nesselroade, 1982; Matheny, Wilson, & Nuss,
1984). Further, evidence has accumulated that individual differences in
children's temperament do influence their experiences and
performance in school (e.g., Billman & McDevitt, 1980; Keogh, 1986;
Lerner, Lerner, J. V., & Zabski, 1985; Martin et al., 1983; Paget,
Nagle, & Martin, 1984; Pullis & Cadwell, 1982). Indeed, though
temperament-environment fit may be important for all pupils, Keogh
(1982) has proposed that temperament is a particularly important
individual attribute when there are limits or handicaps in other
personal domains (e.g., cognitive or motor development).
The purpose in the present study was to investigate the
relationship of individual differences in children's temperament to
their interactions with peers and teachers. Of particular interest was
the relationship of temperamental characteristics to the interpersonal
interactions of handicapped and nonhandicapped children.
A total of 18 children and their teachers participated in this
study. The handicapped sample consisted of 9 children (7 boys and 2
girls) who were enrolled full time in a university-associated preschool.
CA mean and SD were 4.3 and 1.1 years, respectively. With the exception
of one Black and one Asian, the children were Anglo. Handicapping
conditions included Down's syndrome, developmental delay of unknown
etiology, and mild motor delay. Severity of handicaps was mild to
moderate. The nonhandicapped sample consisted of 9 children matched by
age and sex to the handicapped subjects. Mean and standard deviation
for CA were 4.1 and .8 years. Handicapped and nonhandicapped children
were in the same classrooms, ensuring similar opportunities for teacher
and peer interactons. Family backgrounds were middle to upper middle
class, and all children and families were English speaking. The two
master teachers and their aides were Anglo women.
The study was carried out in two parts. First, each master teacher
provided temperament information on each child in her class. Systematic
observations were then made of the children's interactions over a
6-week period. Observations were taken in three settings: rug time,
center time, and outdoor time.
The School Program. Children attended the school for 2-1/2 hours 5
days a week. There were two classrooms, each headed by a master teacher
who was assisted by several student teachers and teacher aides. The
program schedulue included regular daily components: rug time, where all
children in the class gathered into a single group for teacher-directed
activities; center time, where children worked in small groups or alone
at different tables supervised by an adultf and, outdoor play, where
children were relatively undirected, and where each child chose his or
her own group or individual activities.
Temperament. The temperament formulation of Thomas and Chess
(1977) was used in this study. Temperament information was provided by
the master teachers who rated sample children on a 23-item Teacher
Temperament Questionnaire (TTQ) (Keogh, Pullis, & Cadwell, 1982).
This scale is a short form of the 64-item Thomas and Chess Teacher
Temperament Questionnaire. Items describe behaviors typically observed
in school (e.g., "child plunges into new activities and situations
with hesittion"; "child seems to have difficulty sitting
still, may wriggle a lot or get out of seat"). In the Thomas and
Chess scale each of the temperamental dimensions was assessed with eight
items. Factor studies by Keogh et al., (1982) suggested that the eight
dimensions were not entirely independent and could be reduced to three
factors, as follows:
* Factor 1, composed of the Thomas and Chess temperament dimensions
of Activity, Persistence, and Distractibility, was labeled Task
* Factor 2, called Personal/Social Flexibility, is made up of the
temperament dimensions of Adaptability, Approach/Withdrawal, and
* Factor 3, Reactivity, is comprised of dimensions of Theshold of
Response, Intensity, and Negative Mood.
Items included in the 23-item short form of the scale were the most
representative of the dimensions and factors comprising the Thomas and
Chess 64-item scale. Subsequent work by Pullis and Cadwell (1982)
confirmed that the short form of the TQ was reliable and was factorially
consistent with the long form.
Teachers rated each of 23 items on a 1-6 scale (1 = hardly ever, to
6 = almost always), and items were summed to provide a mean score for
each of three factors. The factor scores were the basis for further
Handicappd and nonhandicapped children were observed by trained
female observers over a 6-week period using a time sample schedule
within each of the three settings (rug, center, outdoors) (Burstein,
1986). The 2-1/2-minute, set rotation schedule yielded a minimum of 60
minutes of observation data for each child in center and outdoor play
and 30 minutes in rug time. Observed behaviors included verbal and
nonverbal interactions with peers and with adults, time on task, and
proximity to others. For purposes of analysis, observations were
transformed to proportions. Of importance to the present report,
Burstein found that compared to nonhandicapped children, handicapped
children interacted more with adults, spent more time alone, and their
social interactions were more strongly influenced by the nature of the
setting. Thus, the relationship of temperament to children's
personal social experiences was considered separately for the two groups
and according to setting.
Means and standard deviations for the temperament ratings according
to handicapped and nonhandicapped groups are found in Table 1. Teachers
rated nonhandicapped children higher (better) than handicapped children
on two of three factors. The exception, Reactivity, is essentially a
negative factor. The distribution of scores for the Reactivity
dimension indicates that teachers rated the handicapped children as
being either overreactive or underreactive. Thus, although the mean
value did not differ significantly from that of the nonhandicapped
group, there were clear differences in the natre of the ratings.
The relationships between the temperament ratings and the observed
number of interactions with peers and adults are summarized in Table 2
according to the setting in which the interactions took place. Given
the small Ns for the handicapped and nonhandicapped samples, the number
of statistically significant correlations is relatively low. What is of
interest, however, is the pattern of the relationships, in particular
the differences in direction of coefficients between temperament ratings
and number of teacher-child interactions for the two groups. The
inverse or negative relationships in the handicapped sample is in
contrast to those for the nonhandicapped group, where teachers
interacted more with children whose temperament profiles were positive.
These data suggest that teachers perceive and respond differently to
children with different temperaments, and that for handicapped children,
the more negative the temperament, the more frequent the interaction.
As there were only low and nonsignificant relationships between
frequency of interactions with teachers and severity of handicap
(Burstein, 1986), it may be inferred that some other individual
difference variable, e.g., temperament or behavioral style, contributed
to the interactions. The picture is somewhat different for the
frequency of interaction with peers (see Table 2). For both handicapped
and nonhandicapped groups the pattern of relationships was similar. In
all settings the three temperament factors were positively related to
the amount of peer interaction.
These findings suggest that differences in temperamental
characteristics of preschool children are recognized by teachers and
that temperamental attributes are related to the frequency of
children's interactions with peers and with adults in a preschool
setting. The associations between children's temperamental
characteristics and teachers' interactions within the handicapped
sample were of particular interest. In the nonhandicapped group,
teachers interacted more with children with positive than with negative
temperament profiles, whereas handicapped children with negative
temperament patterns had the greatest number of contacts with teachers.
Examination of the content of the items making up the three temperament
factors indicated that teachers viewed the handicapped children as less
task oriented and less flexible than their nonhandicapped counterparts.
Thus, the relatively high frequency of contact by teachers may have
reflected realistics efforts to increase handicapped children's
involvement in the school program and to manage and modulate
inappropriate behaviors (either overreaction or underreaction). That
interpretation is consistent with Feuerstein and Martin's (1981)
report that teachers' ratings of preschool children's
adjustment were associated with children's temperamental
characteristics contributing to "manageability" and
As part of this study of preschool children, Burstein (1986)
demonstrated that setting is an important influence on young
children's experiences in mainstream classes. She also showed that
handicapped preschoolers have more interactions with teachers and fewer
interactions with children than do their nonhandicapped peers. The
present findings suggest further that individual differences in
temperamental characteristics are associated with frequency of
interactions. For both handicapped and nonhandicapped preschoolers,
positive temperament patterns were associated with higher numbers of
interactions with peers. For nonhandicapped preschoolers, a similar
association was found for child-teacher interactions. For handicapped
children, however, the relationship between positive temperament and
numbers of interactions was negative.
Results of this study must be interpreted cautiously as the number
of children observed was small and the nature of the handcapping
conditions varied. Nonetheless, teachers perceived differences in the
temperamental characteristics of handicapped and nonhandicapped
children. They also perceived differences in temperamental attributes
within groups of handicapped and nonhandicapped children. These
individual differences were related to children's interactions with
peers and teachers. Behavioral style or temperament, thus, may be an
individual difference of importance in children's school
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BARBARA K. KEOGH is Professor, Educational Psychology, University
of California, Los Angeles. NANCY D. BURSTEIN is Assistant Professor of
Education and Director of Elementary and Special Education, Mount St.
Mary's College, Los Angeles, California.