Children’s temperament and their early development

Describe how temperament has been defined and studied by developmental psychologists. With reference to relevant research and theory, discuss the relationship between children’s temperament and their early development. From the moment infants are born, they differ form one another in the emotional responses they use most often. Some are cheerful and active, others more tearful and quiet. Some infants approach new objects and people with enthusiasm, while others turn away. These behaviours reflect differences in the infant’s disposition or temperament. In this essay, we will observe some of the different approaches made to temperament by psychologists, whilst at the same time exploring how they have attempted to define and classify the term. Finally, we will look at how temperament may affect children’s development and in particular how they interact with others.

Temperament has been an important focal point for developmental research over the last twenty years. Particular attention has been paid to temperament in infants, and the differences in the way behaviour is organised in different individuals. Many psychologists believe that temperament has its origins in Biology (Buss and Plomin 1984), whereas others feel that culture and society also have significant influence (Rutter 1987; Bates 1989; Putnam, Sanson and Rothbart 2002). In general, psychologists agree that temperament is, at least, an individual’s behavioural style, and their characteristic way of responding emotionally.

There are two complementary approaches to the measurement of the study of individual differences (Allport 1937). The idiographic approach focuses on the individual and the extent to which they are unique (qualitative rather than quantitative differences). The nomothetic approach measures a group of people on some personality dimensions (traits) to observe to what extent individuals vary on those scales. Temperament in children is one component of these traits. If we want to study temperament then, we need to note the core dimensions of a child’s behaviour, the factors that cause variation and if these can predict future behaviour. But classifying just what the key dimensions of temperament are is a widely debated issue amongst researchers, and raises the question of whether these core factors are stable across time or whether they continually develop.

Through a series of observations at work, child psychologists Thomas and Chess found that individual differences and the influences on children’s behaviour may be related to psychopathology. Further studies (Chess and Thomas 1977; Thomas and Chess 1991) led them to believe that most babies fall into one of three temperament patterns or clusters – a) Easy child, who is generally positive, adapts easily and has regular routines; b) Difficult child who is irregular, irritable and slow to accept change; and finally c) Slow-to-warm-up child, who reacts slow or warily to new situations but eventually comes to enjoy them.

Researchers have found that these three basic types are moderately stable across childhood years. There are nine dimensions that make up these basic clusters of temperament, including activity level, adaptability, distractibility and attention span. Some have argued, however, that it has not been possible to confirm these nine dimensions as independent aspects of temperament, and have said that there are a smaller number of factors involved (Stevenson and Oates 2004). Others have argued that 35% of children do not fit into any temperament category (Saarni 2002) and that this is important, as parents can often pigeonhole children. This itself may have a strong influence on the child’s behaviour.

Buss and Plomin believe that the variations between individuals can be explained by the variations in their physiological/genetic makeup. In 1984, they developed an alternative system [EAS] for classifying temperamental differences, in response to the criticisms of the Thomas and Chess framework. They suggested that just three dimensions could account for most variation in temperament – Emotionality, Activity and Sociability.

These dimensions relate directly to Eysenck’s theory of adult personality, (where personality is formed by “the expression of biologically determined tendencies to behave and react in certain ways” (Stevenson and Oates 2004)) and are closely allied to classical psychometric test construction. They believe that their heritability studies on identical and non-identical twins show that there is a significant genetic component in the factors that constitute the basis for temperament.

Hinde (1989) argues however, that all behaviour is genetically based and that the question should not be how genetics differentiate temperament from other aspects of individual differences, but whether genetic differences can influence aspects of behavioural differences in some people more than others. He maintains that some can be influenced more by differences in environment that by genetic differences. Hinde went on to carry out studies that focused on the extent to which temperament predicted behaviour over time and across similar and different situations; identifying regularities in relationships. He found that there was consistency in four year olds across different situations, but that there was some variation in different aspects of temperament depending on whether the child was intense, active or moody (Hinde and Tobin 1986).

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