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What are the 9 Traits of Temperament?

You can thank Drs. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess for identifying the nine traits of temperament, which help you understand why children act and respond the way they do. They began their study in 1956 and followed a group of children through 1977. They could divide the children into three clear types, easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm-up, plus a 4th type, a mixture of these types.

Other researchers have slightly different models, focusing more on areas such as schools and specific concerns like the risk of a child developing anxiety disorders.

Since your main question is usually the “why” of a child’s behavior, the Thomas and Chess model is the easiest source to answer that question.

Let’s look at the nine traits:


You have your own natural rate that you like to move. You may always be on the go or want to take frequent breaks to recharge. You may thrive in situations with a lot of activity or prefer to be in places with a slower pace.

This preference represents your activity trait–the energy you like to use to get a task done if no one is telling you to hurry up or slow down.

Think about when you are stressed. Do you prefer getting busy doing something – cleaning, eating, running, anything with motion? Or do you seek out places of solitude – reading a book, listening to music, doing meditation, or taking a nap? What if your spouse, friend, or boss pushes you to change your natural level of activity? Do you feel some internal stress and resistance? Most people do. And even if they can comply, they need to make up the difference in their needs later.

This difficulty in changing their usual response is why high-activity children appear to be oppositional when told to slow down. They try to, but the energy builds up inside, so they likely only slow down slightly and struggle to keep it there.

The same is true of the low-activity child. When he hears “Hurry up,” he may move from one mile per hour to two miles per hour, but you want him to go 25 miles per hour. He eventually falls to the ground in tears because his inside energy levels have run out.

RHYTHMICITY: Do people describe you as organized, prompt, and dependable? Or do they comment on your lack of time sense? Do you struggle to keep up to stay organized? Is your sleep schedule consistent or scattered? 

These are all aspects of rhythmicity – how well your inside clock matches the outside world.

Your child may be very picky about where things go and being predictable as to when he is hungry, tired, or ready to get up. It shows up in his ability to keep his room neat and finish his chores or homework on time without hounding. Or your child may always lose everything, never knows how long it takes to get something done, and usually is late at it.

The more stressed these children are, the more of their type of rhythmicity trait you will have to deal with.



How well do you handle change?

 Do you go with the flow?

Do you enjoy surprises and spontaneous adventures?

Or do you wish you had an advanced warning?

Or better yet, keep to the schedule as is?

The ability to be adaptable is essential in life, but the ability to have some expectations of staying with the plan is also needed.

Children who are slow to adapt frequently get upset and ask, “Why?” And the whys could be “Why me?” “Why now?” and “Why this way?” They find it hard to see what will happen if they don’t have all the answers and fear that disaster of some kind, will happen if they “Do it because I said so.”

Children who are too adaptable can have problems too. They will frequently get into trouble with siblings or friends by not asking enough questions when a “great idea” occurs for an adventure. This inability to think about the possible dangers is when they may be talked into vandalism, sneaking out of the house at night, and other activities.


Are you the life of the party? Do you feel as if everybody is your next best friend? Or do you only have a small group of friends you would trust with your life? Do you like going to parties and vacations to meet new people? Or do you find it difficult to be comfortable in larger gatherings, even if it is family?

Approachability describes how easy or difficult it is for you to get comfortable with new people or situations. Some people have never met a stranger. Others take a long time to let others become part of their inner circle of friends.

Children who are not very approachable are often called withdrawal. They frequently stay back when going to new situations, such as birthday parties, the first days of school, and meeting people on the street. They can melt down if pushed to join other kids before getting comfortable. But, given time to size up the situation, they will eventually join in. But it must be on their timeframe.

Exceptionally approachable children can be fun to have. They can scare you, however, because they don’t distinguish between safe and unsafe people to go to or talk to. These children can get upset if others don’t appreciate their forwardness since they don’t know why other children wouldn’t like them.


Are you a person who is very expressive of whatever you are feeling at the time? Or would people describe you as a mystery, not knowing if you are happy, sad, bored, or mad?

Intensity of response refers to how much we show of any emotion at a specific time. Some people are very intense, like drama queens. Others appear not to have evident emotions, described as either aloof or solid people in times of chaos.

Intense children are challenging to parents because they always overreact to even the littlest things. On the other hand, children with low intensity are hard to read and may be in pain without letting you know. Parents and friends accuse these youth of not showing sufficient gratitude when given a gift or a special favor.


What is your first impression when someone asks you to go to a new movie or a farmer’s market? Wonderful, or what will there be to do? I don’t know if I will like it, or I have always wanted to see what farmer’s markets are like.

Some people look forward positively to new situations or unexpected plan changes. Others are the original cloud finders (rather than silver lining finders). They must ask many “What if…” questions before they are willing to try the new or unusual or accept a change in plans.

Children with negative basic moods are frustrating to work with because they have so many “What if…” questions to answer before, or if, you can ever do the activity. You can’t understand why they must overanalyze everything.

The positive basic mood child, however, jumps right in with comments such as “This is going to be so great” or “I know I will win.” The problem is that they don’t take the time to analyze what needs to be done for a good outcome. They can frequently be disappointed.


How efficient are you at completing tasks? Are you able to multitask? Or do you need to do one thing at a time? Do you need to have the job be interesting or positively challenging to stay with it?

There are three types of persistence profiles. The first group can persist only if the activity is interesting or can be made interesting by creating challenges or putting it to music. The second group can continue if they understand what they are doing. Once they hit a spot that they can’t figure out, they stop and try to find something else to do. The third group persists even when they should take a break or do a different task. This group struggles to multitask.

Children who struggle with persisting need help figuring out why this is so and creating plans to do if they hit a wall. It would help if you taught the super-persisters to break projects into sections. When done with one section, you teach them to do a section of another task or the entire task if it is short.



Can you briefly notice a change around you but quickly shift your attention back to what you are doing? Or do you feel your attention is bouncing all over the place, leading to nothing getting done? Of course, you could be the person who gets hyperfocused, not noticing the house burning down around you. You become very irritated that others want you to attend to more than one thing at a time.

Your ability to pay attention to what you are doing and to stop attending to unimportant changes, such as sounds, smells, or movements, around you are essential for staying on top of your day. It is also important to be able to shift your attention if an important situation arises, such as a child screaming after using a knife in the kitchen.

Some children are born with very short attention spans, meaning they can’t decide what is important to pay attention to and so keep shifting attention, much like the dog in the movie UP when he sees a squirrel.

Other children tend to hyper-focus on their actions, frustrating parents and teachers alike because they don’t recognize when they are being called.


How quickly do you notice sensory changes? I mean smells, sounds, tastes, temperature, movement, and how something feels, such as texture. Some people can smell an odor that no one else notices. Some people can taste food and know what spices or herbs are present. Other people can’t tell the difference between chicken and steak. Some people don’t notice changes outside, like the temperature falling, the sun going down, or rain starting.

Our sensory threshold is essential for letting us know about the world around us and providing information on what is good (like chocolate chip cookies) and bad (the skunk walking by), allowing us to react as needed.

Children who are very sensitive to sensory changes can be overwhelmed easily, such as by sound or how food tastes. These children frustrate you because what they are complaining about is barely noticed by you.

Or they have a very high sensory threshold, meaning it takes a higher level of sensory change for them to notice or react. Examples include a child who can’t tell he has an injury because it was not “painful enough” or who will eat food that is bad since they can’t taste the difference.

These nine traits are not good or bad. They just are a part of the child. And how your temperament trait level interacts with your child’s trait level will lead to either a comfortable relationship or one filled with frustration and confusion. If the latter, you learning more about these traits and being willing to adjust how you interact with your child will allow your relationship to grow.

There will be more articles on temperament with different ideas on how to work through your differences, and maybe even help you with your traits if they create pain and frustration in your life.

If you are interested in an in-depth look at three factors of children and adolescents that can create positive or negative futures, check out my program, Developing a Calm Classroom.