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- Ms. Ilian

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Children and the Four Temperaments - What?!

Almost as soon as your child enters the first grade (and sometimes even before), teachers begin to talk about the child's temperament. The child seems to be classified into one of four categories of ancient Greek origin: phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, or melancholic. What?! I've heard parents exclaim. I thought you looked at the whole child, at each child individually. How can you generalize like that and box each child into a single category of temperament? Aren't children more complex than that?

And so the discussion starts. Yes, of course children are more complex than that. However, finding, through observation, the dominant characteristics of each child's temperament helps the teachers to work with the individual children and with the group. Waldorf teachers have a variety of ways to classify children as a result of careful observation, and these classifications change as the child passes through the different developmental stages leading to adulthood. In the early childhood years, the teachers speak of the children as being large or small headed, dreamy or awake. Once the child reaches grade school age, and until about (and often just beyond) the nine-year change, Waldorf teachers speak in terms of the four temperaments. Once the temperaments no longer seem to be a helpful way of looking at the children, Waldorf teachers find it useful to observe children in terms of the seven soul types.

Before going into descriptions and characteristics of the four temperaments, I would like to address the question: Aren't children more complex than that? Can they exhibit more than one temperament? Of course the answer is yes, and yes. Most children show dominance in just one of the temperaments, though many show a strong tendency towards a second as well. A few seem not to show any clear dominance. In addition the youngest grade schoolers often still show the sanguinity of early childhood itself, an element of temperament that can mask the child's individual temperament. Rather than trying to fit the children into one of four descriptive boxes, the teacher will consider all these variations while observing the child and try to understand from all the clues available who the child is and how best to work with him or her. And so, on to the descriptions.

Phlegmatic Children
Phlegmatic children live through their senses. This is the temperament of the first years of life, and in studying the nature of babies you can get a fairly good picture of the phlegmatic nature. Children of this temperament value safety, order and comfort. They are methodical and reliable. They take joy in rich sensory experiences, and tend to have good memories. They often appear soft, a bit round, and their skin usually feels warm and moist. Their favorite color is often green. Their element is water, and they tend to take joy in activities involving water.

Sanguine Children
Sanguine children, like sunbeams, bring light into the spaces they occupy. This is the temperament of early childhood. If you visit a nursery or kindergarten and observe the children moving quickly and easily from friend to friend, activity to activity like a butterfly among flowers, you can develop a feeling for the nature of the sanguine child. Sanguine children want to know everything and everybody, and to do everything, and in pursuit of this end may appear easily distractible and forgetful. They enjoy variety and spontaneity. They often appear slender and frequently run on their toes. Their element is air, and you may see all the colors of the rainbow expressed in whatever they do.

Choleric Children
Choleric children are energetic, enthusiastic and often impulsive. This is the energy one encounters in adolescence. They love working hard, especially when the task has clearly defined parameters including an easily identifiable conclusion. These children immerse themselves fully in everything they do. They accomplish a lot in a short period of time, but find sustaining activities over an indefinite period to be challenging. Their element is fire, and they frequently show a preference for fiery colors,particularly red. Choleric children often have a sturdy build and can wear out a pair of shoes at record speed because of their firm, purposeful tread.  Their handshake is firm, and often very warm. They are quick to anger, but also to laughter, and often can't remember exactly what sparked the emotion.

Melancholic children
Melancholic children are thinkers and planners. They take their responsibilities seriously. This is the temperament of adulthood. Melancholic children are typically loyal friends and careful workers. They tend to care deeply for all living things, and are drawn to healing and fixing all that is damaged or broken. Melancholic children often appear slender and pale and, unlike the sanguine children, the melancholics tread firmly on the earth, sometimes even dragging their feet a little. Their hands often feel cold to the touch. Melancholic children often show a strong interest in nurturing occupations and will work tirelessly for the benefit of others. Their element is earth, and they generally find the care of the earth satisfying. With their propensity for seriousness, they usually exhibit a strong, reliable memory, and  a talent for leadership

These are quick summaries of the temperaments. They provide an interesting tool for understanding the nature of children especially during the ages between six and ten. In the following posts I will feature each of the temperaments individually and more fully. I welcome the input and observations of this blog's readers.


  1. The reaction I always get when the temperaments are mentioned is: isn't that archaic? No one talks about temperaments anymore!

    Also: what are the 7 soul forces? Never heard of them before.

  2. I think the temperaments are an interesting way to look at our children. Is it just a guideline for understanding the child or is there things that a Waldorf teacher is taught to alter around them? The way I understand it is that it is only a way to help understand the child.

    Dancer, are you a Waldorf teacher or have your children at a Waldorf school?

  3. What would be the use of understanding, if one did not apply that understanding? Yes, there are things that teachers - and parents - can do to work more effectively with children based on those children's temperaments and a knowledge of not just each temperament, but how different ones interact. That's what the next 4 posts will be about.

  4. Andrea - I was a waldorf student for 11 years, and a waldorf parent for 16 years. My parents and sister are waldorf teachers.

  5. Thank you very much for these thumbnail sketches of the four temperaments. I am a preschool/kindergarden teacher who's own children attended Waldorf school, so I have some familiarity with the concept. I actually find it very helpful to recognize temperament in the children I work with. It helps me to understand the best way to work with each child. I realize that this form of classification is not typically applied to children under six, and I don't expect that any one temperament young children exhibit will be fixed throughout their life. My question is, does anyone else find it useful when working with young children, to see the children through a temperament type? Is there a caution in doing so? I am very interested in your experience and welcome any response. Thanks for your deep caring of the children you influence.
    Sincerely, Three Trees

  6. I'm confused. Why are these 4 temperaments linked to different ages when you said before they are usully applied during the primary school years? Thanks

  7. Tria: I find it somewhat helpful when working with small children in so far as when they exhibit a temperament, I have a basis for response. It's not the same, though, as with early grade school children who are living into their temperament for several years.

    En Casa: When I say that the temperaments are linked to certain more general stages and ages of development, it means that this is the mood of that age; it applies to people of that age group in a kind of general way. That is different from the individual child living into his or her temperament during the first few grade school years. Is that more clear?

    Everyone else: I will be updating this blog shortly. I got diverted by a sudden call to teach again, which I have taken up. But I am not abandoning this blog. Thank you for your patience.