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By Sue Cowleyexperienced classroom teacher and behaviour expert

Each child is unique, with their own individual and complex personality. Sue Cowley looks at how to manage the different personality types in your setting

There are numerous factors that contribute to the formation of a child’s personality. These include genetic predispositions, influences from parents, home and local environment, peer group interactions and so on.

While we might all have a generalised personality ‘type’, personality is not a static state – it can vary from hour to hour and from day to day. As practitioners, we can help children to develop their personalities, whether it is boosting a shy child’s confidence levels, or showing an angry, aggressive child how to stay calm.

It is useful to have an understanding of some of the basic personality ‘types’ that you might meet in your setting. Of course, these are generalised statements, and each case will have its own subtle variations. Exploring the types of behaviours you might encounter will help you to identify the appropriate behaviour management strategies to use with different individuals.

The ‘leader’ or dominant child

Some children have a dominant personality, which shows up particularly during group activities. These children are typically confident and outgoing, with good verbal skills. Often, they are physically mature in relation to their chronological age and heavily built in comparison to other children in the setting. The ‘leader’ will normally have a high status within the peer group. Sometimes there are two ‘leaders’ in a setting – one male and one female.

Kind of behaviours that you may see from a ‘leader’

  • Giving instructions to other children about what they should do.
  • Taking charge of group activities – acting as group ‘director’.
  • Using assertive body language, for example, standing over peers.

Various problem behaviours that may arise

  • The child taking over during group activities.
  • Aggressive body language or behaviour, with the child getting uncomfortably close to peers, pushing, shoving and so on.
  • Bossing other children around – saying ‘you must do this’.

How to help a dominant child improve their behaviour

  • Use activities that teach empathy, cooperation and turn-taking.
  • Talk with the child about appropriate body language, demonstrating the concept of ‘private space’.
  • Use strategies to encourage turn-taking in group activities, for example, passing a ‘conch’ around. The child holding the shell is allowed to speak without interruption.
  • Use plenty of positive reinforcement when you notice the child is playing cooperatively.

The ‘loner’ or socially-awkward child

Some children are not keen to socialise. They find it hard to make friends and have difficulty sharing and empathising. We often assume that all children want to mix with others, however, some children enjoy their own company, and prefer solitary activities.

Kind of behaviours that you may see from a ‘loner’

  • Standing to one side during group activities.
  • Choosing activities that can be played alone.
  • Preferring to interact with adults rather than with children.

Various problem behaviours that may arise

  • Getting upset about ‘having no friends’ and feeling lonely.
  • Being overly clingy with adults and finding it hard to break from their parents when dropped off at the setting.

How to help a socially-awkward child improve their behaviour

  • Encourage other children to include this child during informal play.
  • Talk with the child, and group, about how to make new friends.
  • Sit with the child during group activities to help introduce and incorporate them into the social group.

The ‘shy’ or unconfident child

Some children are ‘shrinking violets’. A lack of confidence can come about because of self-esteem issues, but it may also be simply a facet of a child’s personality. Confidence in an early years setting is something that develops over time. A child might be reasonably confident talking one to one with the practitioner, but could have trouble speaking up in group situations.

Kind of behaviours that you may see from a ‘shy’ child

  • Opting out of group activities.
  • Watching, rather than participating, during play times.
  • Refusing to speak during group discussions.

Various problems behaviours that may arise

  • Getting upset as they struggle to express an idea. This can sometimes develop into speech difficulties, such as a stammer.
  • Other children in the group being impatient and failing to wait for the child to contribute.

How to help an unconfident child

  • Never force the child to contribute in group situations – allow them to ‘pass’ if they do not wish to say anything.
  • Start with small steps, such as a non-verbal contribution to ‘show and tell’.
  • Gradually build up the child’s confidence by using lots of praise when the child shows or says something to the group.
  • Use activities where the children boost each other’s self-esteem, for example, asking everyone to say something positive about a partner.

The ‘hyperactive’ or over-excitable child

The over-excitable child can be spotted haring around the setting, chatting non stop and interacting with everyone in sight. At playtime, they will typically choose high-energy activities. These children can be prone to bumps and scrapes because of all their physical energy.

Kind of behaviours that you may see from a ‘hyperactive’ child

  • High levels of physical energy, particularly after meal times.
  • Trying everything, but does not ‘stick’ at any one activity for a long period.
  • Lots of chatter, but has difficulty with clear one-to-one expression.

Various problem behaviours that may arise

  • Flitting from activity to activity and exhibiting low levels of concentration.
  • Refusing to be quiet to listen to the practitioner or other children.
  • Inability to sit still, whether on the carpet for a story or at a table activity.

How to help an over-excitable child

  • Carry out focus and concentration activities with the group, for example, freezing like statues, sleeping lions and so on.
  • Note how diet affects this child, and, if necessary, limit exposure to ‘energy burst’ type foods.
  • Set short targets, which gradually increase over time – two minutes on an activity, then three, and so on.

Further information

‘Raging Boffins’ is an article about the nature/nurture debate

‘Why Home Doesn’t Matter’ is an essay featured in Prospect considering the factors behind personality development

Visit Sue Cowley’s website for advice about building positive and successful relationships with children.