Chess and Thomas’ Temperament Theory


Some good parents have been dealing with temperamentally difficult children. Highly dysfunctional parents have also been noted with successful children who have been able to cope up through their temperamental strengths. Siblings raise in the same environment and parental discipline have been noted with great differences in their responses and temperament.  Children are not all alike. There are those who quickly adapts to new situations while others are slowly dealing with changes. Intense reactions are noted to some infants and there are those who have been reacting passively. The differences of a person’s reactions, adaptability and approach are called temperament. Temperament is an individual’s usual reaction pattern or manner of thinking, behaving or reacting to stimuli in the environment.

History: Concept of Temperament

Concepts about temperament are already determined since the time of Greeks. During this period, temperament is determined by the proportion of four bodily fluids present in an individual. The ancient Greek believed that blood represents cheerfulness while phlegm stands for sluggishness or apathy. Black bile signifies gloominess whilst anger is represented by yellow bile.

By the 17th century the role of the environment was emphasized in the development of temperament. During these times, the mind was considered a blank slate written and filled with input from experiences. Thus, individual differences in behavior are no longer due to inborn nature. Two centuries after, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory continued emphasis on external forces to explain temperament was noted although innate drives played a minor role in determining behavior.

During the early 20th century, temperament or behavior theory was focused on the role of environment. It is during the middle of the 20th century that researchers and clinicians were questioning about this extreme environmentalism. Among them were child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas who based their argument on the faults of their psychoanalytic training.

Chess and Thomas’ Model of Temperament

Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas noticed during their practice that some children with behavioral problems had received good parenting and those who seemed well adjusted had received defective parenting. Thus, the clinicians identified nine separate characteristics that define reactivity patterns in assessing the temperament of a child. The pattern of each child’s thinking is made up of a combination of these individual elements.

  • Activity Level

There is a wide difference among the level of activity in children. Some babies are rarely quiet and always on the go. As early as two weeks these infants wiggle and squirm in their cribs and when putting them to sleep, parents would find them at the other end of the bed. These babies will not stay seated in bathtubs for and refuse to be confined in playpens. Other babies, on the other hand, just stay where they are, move little and quiet. If asked which of the two type is normal, the answer is both. The reaction patterns in each type of baby reflect an extreme motor activity, which is one of the characteristics of temperament.

  • Rhythmicity

A regular rhythm of a child’s physiologic functions is referred to as rhythmicity. Children with a regular rhythmicity are predictable and easy to care for because their parents learn early on what to expect from them. Babies with this type of rhythmicity tend to wake up at the same time each day, take naps at the same hour, are hungry at a regular 4-hour interval and have a bowel movement at the same time each day.

Infants with irregular rhythmicity are more difficult to care for. Children with this rhythmicity may go a long time without eating and at times gets easily hungry few minutes after feeding. Also, they rarely awaken at the same time each day and their bowel movement is unpredictable. Planning a schedule for these babies is difficult and parents must constantly adapt their own routines to the child’s.

  • Adaptability

Some children approach a new situation in an unruffled manner while some demonstrate withdrawal. This initial response with a new stimulus refers to a child’s APPROACH. For children with a positive approach, new toys are explored without apprehension. When a new food is introduced these babies accept the feeding without spitting or fussing. These babies smile and talks to strangers during initial contact.

On the other hand, children with negative approach cry at the sight of strangers, new toys and new foods. When placed at the bathtub for the first time they fuss and during vacations these children are very difficult to take with. Meeting a new childcare provider may be hard for these babies as they react so fearfully to new stimulus.

Daisy Jane Antipuesto RN MN

Currently a Nursing Local Board Examination Reviewer. Subjects handled are Pediatric, Obstetric and Psychiatric Nursing. Previous work experiences include: Clinical instructor/lecturer, clinical coordinator (Level II), caregiver instructor/lecturer, NC2 examination reviewer and staff/clinic nurse. Areas of specialization: Emergency room, Orthopedic Ward and Delivery Room. Also an IELTS passer.

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