Relationship of temperament to preschoolers' interactions with peers and teachers.
Teacher-student relationships (Research)
Temperament (Social aspects)
Child psychology (Research)
Educational research (Methods)
Interpersonal relations in children (Research)
Keogh, Barbara K.
Burstein, Nancy D.
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Name: Exceptional Children Publisher: Council for Exceptional Children Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1988 Council for Exceptional Children ISSN: 0014-4029
Date: Feb, 1988 Source Volume: v54 Source Issue: n5

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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 schools.

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 Orientation.

* Factor 2, called Personal/Social Flexibility, is made up of the temperament dimensions of Adaptability, Approach/Withdrawal, and Positive Mood.

* 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 analysis.


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 "sociability."

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 experience.


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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.
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