development language

Child Temperament and Toddler Language: What parents need to know

Child temperament & speech delay

As an Early Childhood Interventionist for over twenty years, one thing I have learned while working with toddlers with speech delays is that there are a number of factors that can have an impact on getting to those precious first words.  One of those factors is the child's temperament.   

When we think of temperament, most of us think about strong willed children, laid back children and the like.  You may be interested to learn (I know I was) that in fact, there are nine traits that make up temperament.  Research on child temperament began in the 1950s with the work of Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess.  They found that these traits were present at birth and continued to influence a child's development throughout life.

In a nutshell, temperament is a set of in-born traits that organize a child's approach to the world.  These traits are instrumental in the development of the child's distinct personality.  They also determine how the child goes about learning about the world around him. 

This is why understanding a child's temperament is crucial for parents.  It allows us to have deeper insight into how our children tick thus making it easier for us to tailor OUR approaches to their individual uniqueness.  Just as a teacher has to figure out how each individual student learns best, we need to do this for our children.  Doing so increases the likelihood of positive outcomes.

The key here is to remember that these traits are inborn.  We can't change them (as much as we would like to)!  Problems arise when the strategies we use to encourage growth and learning clash with child's temperament.   That includes our own communication or parenting styles.  I'll talk about that in a future post...

For now, lets get back to the nine traits identified by researchers Chess and Thomas.  Most of these are self-explanatory so I won't describe them in much depth but rather pose questions to help you determine how this trait fits your child.  I like to consider each of these traits as a continuum with most children falling in the middle and some scattered to either end.  The nine traits of temperament include:

  • Activity. Is your child always moving and doing something or does he have a more relaxed style?  
  • Rhythmicity.  Is your child regular in his or her eating and sleeping habits or somewhat haphazard?  Some kids run like clockwork and others just don't seem to have any rhyme or reason.  I find that my kids can be very regular regarding somethings (like what time they get up) and irregular about others (like what time they go to bed). 
  • Approach/withdrawal.  Does your child approach unfamiliar people and places without inhibition or tend to shy away from new people or things?  
  • Adaptability.  Does your child adjust to changes in routines or plans easily or does he or she resist transitions?  
  • Intensity.  Does he react strongly to situations, either positive or negative, or does he react calmly and quietly? 
  • Mood.  Does your child often express a negative outlook or is he generally a positive person.  Does his mood shift frequently or is he usually even tempered? 
  • Persistence and Attention Span.  Does he give up as soon as a problem arises with a task or does he keep trying?  Can he stick with an activity for a long time or does his mind tend to wander? 
  • Distractibility.  Is he easily distracted from what he is doing or can he shut out external distractions and stay with the current activity? 
  • Sensory Threshold.  Is he bothered by external stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights or food textures or does he tend to ignore them?

These traits combine to form three basic types of temperaments.  Approximately 65 percent of all children fit one of these three basic types.  The remaining 35 percent are a combination of these patterns. 

The first type is the easy or flexible childApproximately 40% of children fall into this category.  These children are generally calm, happy, regular in their sleep and eating habits and do not get upset easily.  They are also very adaptable.  All right, who are the lucky parents out there with one of these kids?!  Despite these children being easy in nature, it is important for parents to set aside special times to talk about the child's frustrations and hurts because he won't demand or ask for it.  This intentional communication is sometimes necessary to find out what these kids are thinking.

From a language standpoint, these kids are typically pretty receptive to various language strategies.  I find that they are often engaged and enjoy social interaction and play making implementation of strategies pretty easy for parents.

The next group are the difficult, active or feisty children which comprise approximately 10% of children. I must say that this number seems quite low based on all the parents I have met over the years who have described their children as "difficult."  These children are often fussy, irregular in feeding and sleeping habits, and fearful of new people and situations.  They are easily upset by noise and commotion, high strung and intense in their reactions.  These kiddos can be a real challenge for even the most skilled parent.  I find that these kids often benefit from sensory based strategies, e.g., heavy work, calm down zones, etc. 

This group can be a real challenge when working on language.  They are often quite busy and can be difficult to engage as a result.  Bodies in motion are hard to teach!  I find that incorporating language into sensory play usually works well for this kiddos.  Activities such as sensory bins or incorporating sounds and actions during physical games can really ramp up the learning.

The final group are slow to warm up or cautious kidsAbout 15% of children fall into this category.  These children are relatively inactive and fussy.  They tend to withdraw or to react negatively to new situations, but their reactions gradually become more positive with continuous exposure.  I've worked with MANY children like this over the years.  These children can be frustrating for parents as well because they are often clingy.  They prefer to stay by the parents side rather than exploring or engaging in play with peers.  These kids often have a more difficult time transitioning into new situations such as preschool.  Sticking to a routine is important for them.  It makes them feel safe.  It's also important to stick to your word, e.g., if you say you are going to be right back, then you better be RIGHT BACK.  And finally, be patient and allow them ample time to to establish relationships in new situations.  Rushing a slow to warm child to engage before he or she is ready usually backfires horribly. 

These kiddos are probably the most challenging to work with.  They are keen observers and seem to be quite sensitive to any attempt to MAKE them do something.  The key with these kiddos is to back off on any kind of pressure.  Telling them to say words is a sure fired way for them not to.

Again, this is just one piece of the puzzle we need to look at when working on getting toddlers talking.  I cover all of the pieces of the puzzle as well as strategies for parents to stimulate language in my digital course How to Get Your Toddler Talking. You can learn more here.

Next week I'll be talking about a related topic -- child communication styles.  Be sure to sign up for my newsletter if you want me to send the link right to your mailbox by clicking here.