Thomas and Chess studied nine behaviors in children in order to understand temperament.

  • activity level
  • rhythmicity (regularity)
  • approach or withdrawal
  • adaptability
  • threshold of responsiveness
  • intensity of reaction
  • quality of mood
  • distractibility
  • attention span and persistence

Three Types of Children

What they found were that while all children show the same behaviors at some time, some children were more likely to show certain behaviors. They found that about 60% of children fall into one of three groups.

  • The Easy Child - this child showed regular eating, sleeping, elimination cycles, a positive approach response to new situations, and could accept frustration with little fuss. They adapted to change, such as new food or a new school quickly. They showed a good mood most of the time, and smiled often. Most of the problems reported with these children resulted when the child was placed in situations that required responses that were inconsistent with what they had learned at home.
  • The Difficult Child - this child showed irregular eating, sleeping, and elimination cycles. They displayed a negative approach response to new situations, for example frequent and loud crying or throwing tantrums when frustrated. They are slow to adapt to change, and need more time to get used to new food or people. Most of the problems reported with these children centers around socialization patterns, expectations of family, school, and peer groups.
    If pushed to become immediately involved in a situation, these children were more likely to exhibit loud refusal and sometime oppositional and aggressive behavior.
  • The Slow-to-Warm-Up Child - this child showed negative responses of mild intensity when exposed to new situations, but slowly came to accept them with repeated exposure. They have fairly regular biological routines. Problems with these children varied depending on the other characteristics they showed.
  • If the child was high activity, problems developed when the child had insufficient space, highly rigid schedules, or few constructive activities for motor activity.
  • The persistent child showed problems if attempts to engage in a task were prematurely or abruptly interrupted.
  • The distractible child was distressed when asked to work for long periods or beyond his/her capabilities.
  • If pushed to become immediately involved in a situation, these children were more likely to exhibit withdraw behavior of mild intensity, such as clinging to the parent, quietly refusing to move, or retreating to the corner of the room

Many children in the non-clinical samples displayed the same behavior; however, the environment had not labeled this behavior or these traits as behavior problems. For example, the Difficult Child, when placed in an environment where s/he was expected to adapt to impatient, inconsistent, and/or pressuring parents or teachers may respond with problematic or acting-out behavior.

Carey (1974) noted that children with low sensory thresholds were more likely to awaken at night, and that "maternal anxiety, anger, and feelings of helplessness" may result from rather than be caused by the child's sleep problems.

Environmental Differences

Thomas and Chess also studied temperament and environment in two samples; one sample consisted of white middle class families with high educational status and the other sample of Puerto Rican working class families. Several differences emerged.

  • Parents of middle-class children were more likely than those of Puerto Rican children to report behavior problems before the age of nine years (31% vs. 10%). Parents of middle class children complained most often about sleep problems, perhaps because entry into pre-school began on the average at about age 3 or 4. Sleep problems were rare in Puerto Rican children below the age of 5, but very common at age 6, when school began.
  • Parents of middle class children placed great stress on the child's early development, progress at developmental milestones… believing that problems were indicative of later problems in psychological development. Parents of Puerto Rican children, on the other hand, saw problems as temporary, and believed the child would outgrow them.
  • Middle class children were expected to develop regular sleeping patterns, ability to dress and feed themselves, to play with educational toys, to follow verbal instructions… etc. much earlier. Puerto Rican children, on the other hand, were not expected to accomplish tasks as early.
  • At the age of 9 years, the report of new problems in middle class children dropped sharply. Thomas and Chess speculate that it rose in the Puerto Rican children as they were faced with more and more demands from the school systems.
  • Only 1 of 42 middle class children presented hyperactive behavior, compared to 8 of 15 Puerto Rican children (2% compared to 53%). Puerto Rican children were more likely to be cooped up in apartments with little space to play often due to the fear of accidents or violence in the streets. Middle class children, on the other hand, were more likely to grow up in larger homes with adequate play space and live in safer and less violent areas.
  • Discipline problems were less frequent in middle class children than in Puerto Rican children, whose parents were more concerned about delinquency in the East Harlem community than parents of middle class children. Learning problems were more common in the middle class children, whose parents were more concerned with scholastic achievement than parents of Puerto Rican children.

Thus, some of the "temperamental" differences we see in children may also be cultural.