The Four Temperaments

Knowing personality style helps support students with emotional disturbance

Students who have the special education coding of emotional disturbance (ED) are often misunderstood— defined by the negative behaviors they demonstrate. They are also stigmatized, villainized, removed from classrooms with their nondisabled peers, and often avoided by staff who are responsible for their educational and social-emotional needs.

Is this because staff do not like these students? Likely not—most are underserved because staff lack the knowledge and skills essential to educate and to address the whole-child needs of ED students.

Identify and Incentivize

Many scholarly articles say that a classwide behavior system can help manage students with an emotional disability. As important as a classwide system might be, if a staff member does not recognize the underlying mental health diagnosis of the student, it won’t be productive. Why? Because the underlying condition regulates how the student responds to direction, redirection, frustration intolerance due to rising rigor of classroom lessons, and interactions with staff.

Once staff recognize the underlying condition, interactions can become more effective and engaging. For instance, when I’m working with a student with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), he or she is naturally going to disagree with me or bargain for alternatives. I have seen staff attempt to handle the bargaining with, “Do what I say,” or “Because I told you to do so.” But the ODD student perceives the world in terms of control, so a better strategy would be for staff to give the student two options of an appropriate response, choice, or action, allowing the student to remain in control under guidelines that the staff has established.

Another best practice for motivating ED students is the use of incentives. I often hear the charge that this is “bribing” students, and that students shouldn’t be rewarded for making appropriate choices or displaying appropriate behavior. My reaction is always the same: I remind staff that they don’t work for free, and neither should the students.

A student’s job is to learn how to use their words instead of becoming aggressive or frustrated when angry, identify their triggers, find alternative ways to handle peer conflicts, follow directions, attend school daily, and meet grade-level or intervention expectations. Incentives—and especially incentives selected by the student—provide the motivation students need to attain their IEP goals and objectives.

ED students are misunderstood because their negative behaviors make staff uncomfortable. But acute responses to negative behaviors such as immediate removal from the classroom are often ineffective; those students are no longer available for instruction. To deal effectively with the ED population, staff must be able to let go of their own insecurities and perceptions about behavior, identify differences in temperament, and redirect negative behavior.

Know Your Student

The way in which one interprets the actions of others and interacts with others is based on their personal temperament style. There are several inventory tools that educators can use to assess their own temperament style and that of students. I use a framework I created more than 20 years ago that identifies four temperament styles:

  • Attention craves relationships and attachments.
  • Autonomy wants to be the captain of the ship.
  • Harmony seeks equilibrium.
  • Justice advocates for equity.

If a student is attention-oriented, for example, they will do everything in their power to get a response or connect with staff. With an ED student, this is often communicated via negative behavior that gets staff or peer attention quickly. Most ED students must learn how to garner appropriate attention for the right reasons, because they have been getting so much attention through negative behaviors.

A student with an autonomy temperament wants to run the class. Because people with autonomy temperaments are often true leaders, teachers might see the need for control as a power play. Maybe it is, but power isn’t such a bad thing when it contributes to change and recognition. Students with this temperament style might be disliked or avoided because staff misunderstand the need driving the behavior; a viable response would be to identify ways in which this student can lead in the classroom.

Adults can escalate behavior by responding in ways that don’t meet the needs of the student’s temperament. Let’s consider a classroom disruption from an attention-temperament student. In most circumstances, staff ignores the behavior because they learned that that’s the best way to handle negative attention-seeking. Wrong! If you ignore the negative behavior with an attention temperament, the behavior gets worse.

The key is to get the student to learn how to delay gratification. The best reaction? To acknowledge the student by whispering in their ear that you would love to spend time with them, but ask if they can wait until after the lesson. It can be that easy.

Know Yourself

Having staff know their own temperament style is equally important. For instance, staff with autonomy temperaments often have disagreements with students with autonomy temperaments because both want to be in control.

The key to successfully working with ED students is to get to know them— not just their behavior. When educators focus on knowing students by engaging with them in an objective manner based on the student’s temperament style, academic achievement and social-emotional growth will follow.

There’s never a dull moment with ED students. Watching them learn to regulate their emotions, deal with conflict effectively, and attain academic mastery is always worth the amount of work that it takes to educate them.

Lillian Cockrell is principal of Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City Public Schools.