Contributions to Social Behaviour

New classifications of temperament continue to be developed. Kagan (1988; 2003) classifies temperament by comparing shy, timid children with sociable extraverted ones, using ‘inhibition to the unfamiliar’ as a temperament category. Inhibited children were found to react to many unfamiliar situations with avoidance or distress, beginning around 7 to 9 months of age. Kagan found that inhibition shows a high degree of stability into middle childhood (around age 7).

Rothbart and Bates (1998) concluded that the best framework for classifying temperament involves a revision of Thomas and Chess’ framework. The general classification, however, now seems to focus more on Positive affect and approach, similar to Kagan’s concept of inhibition; Negative affectivity, which also fits in Kagan’s concept, involving whether children are easily distressed or not; and Effortful control/Self-Regulation. This involves children who show an ability to soothe themselves, and stop themselves getting easily agitated.

The temperament of a child can have direct and indirect effects on their development. Under this transactional model, the child plays an important role in producing its own experience. This is particularly true when it comes to the influence a child’s behaviour can have upon its parents, caregivers and pre-school teachers. Let us consider an example of a direct effect on temperament on early development. A child who has a short attention span and is impulsive may experience some learning difficulties at pre-school (Tizard and Hughes 1984). This may have implications for the child’s academic attainment if their teacher does not have the necessary time or resources available.

‘Goodness of fit’ refers to the match between a child’s temperament and the environmental demands a child must cope with (Bates 2001). In the example given above, a child with a short span of attention would be best suited to an environment where there were teachers who were trained in how best to help and teach such a child, and where there were many different types of resources available (e.g. Visual, Auditory, etc.) to vary the method of teaching a particular topic in order to hold the child’s attention longer.

Likewise, a child who is active would not be suited to an environment (at home, school or with carers) where there is little room to move about or where they would be asked to sit still for long periods of time. This lack of fit with social context and relationships (with parents/carers) could result in adjustment problems for the child. This indirect effect that temperament has, suggests that the interaction between the child and environment must be taken into account when considering behaviour and parenting.

In 1995, temperament experts Sanson and Rothbart carried out research on what the implications of temperamental differences were for parents. They concluded that parents should pay attention to and have respect for individuality, being sensitive to their infants’ signals and needs. Research has shown that if mothers of infants who are distress-prone get support and training, that the quality of mother-infant interaction improves (van den Boom 1989). Secondly, they found that the child’s environment needs to be structured to ‘fit’ around them as much as possible.

For example, crowded, noisy environments can pose problems for some ‘difficult’ children. Finally, they found that some parenting programs are beneficial for parents dealing with ‘difficult’ children. The problem with this, however, as mentioned before, lies in the fact that the child being labelled ‘Difficult’ can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also places the blame for the problem with the child rather than, perhaps, the lack of fit with their environment.

In infancy, temperament styles can evoke different responses in people. For example, parents with active smiling children are more likely to be smiled at and played with (Stevenson and Oates 2004). Inhibited children may choose to avoid encounters with others, preventing them from becoming socially skilled. This may have an impact on their social behaviour in the future.

Scarr and Mc Cartney (1983) have suggested that children’s temperament influences their interaction with the world through three routes – a) Firstly through passive gene-environment correlations, where the child shares a similar temperament to its parents; b) Secondly, through evocative gene-environment correlations where the child’s behaviour evokes a specific response from caregivers and c) Active Gene-environment correlations where the child actively seeks a suitable environment for its temperament. As the child grows, the mix of these correlations will change.

In conclusion, despite the difficulties in defining and classifying it, psychologists’ studies into temperament have gained parents an important insight into how best to care for their infants. Research does not yet give many highly specific recommendations, but in general, parents, carers and teachers should be sensitive and flexible in responding to the individual characteristics of a child, and avoid labelling them. Future research into specific temperamental differences will help us further in our knowledge of how they may influence not only a person’s early development, but also the effects they may have on adulthood.


Bates, J.E. (1989) ‘Applications of temperament concepts’ in Kohnstamm, G., Bates, J.E. and Rothbart, M.K. (eds.) Temperament in Childhood; Chichester; John Wiley; pp321-356.

Bates, J.E. (2001) ‘Adjustment style in childhood as a product of parenting and temperament’ in T.D. Wachs […]

Buss, A.H. and Plomin, R. (1984) Temperament: Early developing personality traits; Hillside, N.J.; Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dunn, J. and Kendrick, C. (1982) Siblings: love, envy and understanding; Cambridge, M.A; Harvard University Press.

Kagan, J. (1988) ‘Temperamental Contributions to Social Behaviour’ in American Psychologist; Vol.44; pp668-674.

Kagan, J. (2003) ‘Biology, context and developmental inquiry’ in Annual Review of Psychology; Vol.54; Pab Alto, C.A; Annual Reviews.

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