Can you explain the temperaments and how understanding a child’s temperament is important in instruction—and in parenting?
Waldorf class teachers often imagine their class as an orchestra with four different sections. Up at the front of the room, eager and ready, are the horns. These students are strong, dynamic, forceful, and sometimes a little brassy. Toward the windows we might find the winds—light, lyrical, and lilting. The sounds they make are more light filled and gentle, like the flute, a melodic sound that easily drifts off. In the back of the room are the strings. Some, like the violins are intricate and a little high-strung. The strings are knowledgeable, thoughtful, observant, and capable. They carry the music along. In the fourth section we might find the timpani drums, waiting patiently for their turn. They may not contribute as often, but when they do, everyone notices how much richer the orchestra sounds.
These sections are like the temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. It was Rudolf Steiner’s intention that the first Waldorf teachers would understand the temperaments and know how to apply this understanding for the benefit of their students. He spoke about this understanding in his teacher training course for the first teachers (See Discussions with Teachers).
An understanding of the temperaments definitely predates Waldorf education. It was originally referred to by Hippocrates back in ancient Greece and related to the four humors (yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm) that gave rise to the four temperaments. The choleric temperament is forceful, powerful and at times given to anger. It is the opposite of the phlegmatic temperament which is relaxed and sedentary—interested in comfort, leisure, people, and a good meal. The melancholic is the brooding temperament—introspective, complex, and philosophical—quite the opposite of the sanguine, who is light-hearted, social, carefree, and at times flighty. This understanding of the temperaments was also present throughout the writings of William Shakespeare. Characters like Hamlet (melancholic), Falstaf (phlegmatic), Puck (sanguine), and Lady Macbeth (choleric) embodied, for better or worse, the characteristics of these temperaments.
“When I am dull with care and melancholy, [He] Lightens my humor with his merry jests.” — The Comedy of Errors
“I tell thee, Kate…
I expressly am forbid to touch it;
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And ‘twere better that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric.”— The Taming of the Shrew
In a Waldorf School, the role of the temperaments applies most appropriately to the grade school child. High school teachers have a different paradigm for understanding their students, as do the preschool teachers. But in the second phase of childhood, from grade one until the end of middle school, a student’s temperament becomes apparent and important. Steiner hoped that the temperaments would help teachers better understand their students by providing a window into the hidden inner world of the child.
In general—and of course generalizations have their limitations—teachers find the choleric students like action. If there is something to do—nails to hammer, boards to carry, a hole to be dug—they are ready. Like Tom Sawyer, they do not lack confidence and are often fearless and ready to lead. They are great supporters of fairness, yet they can be hard on things—particularly shoes and clothing—and yes, on people. They tend to walk with a heavy foot and seem to take up more personal space than some of the other children, which can quickly make a room feel small. The cholerics have an intensity similar to the color red and they can burn with the heat of high summer.
The sanguine children are ever so interested in their classmates. In grade one, they are the first to learn the names of the other students. They notice who is absent, who has had a haircut, and who has a new coat. They live strongly in their sense impressions, noticing and delighting in change. Remembering their homework or their jacket or lunch box can be challenging, however. They are like the spring, light, breezy, and carefree. They are like sunshine in the morning. They are like the color yellow.
The phlegmatic children are the most consistent. They arrive each morning in a similar way—quiet, well-mannered, deliberate, and orderly. They like their world to be predictable—particularly at meal times—and they do not like to be pressured or rushed. Like the tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” they can be slow, but steady, and they are usually loyal friends and pleasant classmates. The phlegmatic children take care of their things. Unlike the choleric child, whose crayon case often looks like it has been in a battle and some of the crayons have been wounded or taken prisoner, the phlegmatic child’s crayon case generally looks like it is brand new. These children can be as still and peaceful as a cold winter’s night. Their favorite color is often green.
The melancholic students learn quickly. They have a good memory for facts and details, particularly in a story, and often write long, informative compositions. They are very observant and reflective. It is not an exaggeration to say that the melancholic child experiences pain deeply. Blisters, cuts, colds, bruises, sore throats, and scrapes seem to burden them more deeply and more often than the other students. Melancholic children are like the autumn; a hint of sadness is in the air. Their favorite colors are often blue and purple.
The four temperaments provide teachers with insights into a student’s behavior they may not have gained otherwise. Years ago, a student entered my fifth grade class because of the difficulties that he had finishing his assignments at his previous school. His parents had spent well over a thousand dollars having him evaluated, but neither the evaluators nor his teachers at the previous school could find a way to help him overcome his difficulties. When he joined our class he still had the same challenge; his assignments took him longer than the other children. But one morning in main lesson, as I watched this student prepare to work, I noticed something that was very helpful. When the class began their work and opened their main lesson books and started to write, this young fellow took out his pencil case and opened it slowly. He then carefully took out his main lesson book and his pencil sharpener and placed everything neatly on his desk in their accustomed places. Then he began to sharpen the pencils that were a little dull, first the red, then the green, and, while he was at it, also the gold. Then he organized all of his pencils so they were back in rainbow order. When everything was perfectly ordered, he finally began to work on the title. Unfortunately, by this time, most of the students were nearly half done with their assignment. And that was when the light went on for me. This young fellow was extremely methodical, a characteristic of a good phlegmatic child. This was a deeply phlegmatic boy working in a deeply phlegmatic way. Add to this the understanding that phlegmatic children do not like to be pressured or rushed, and it was easy to see why this student had been unhappy at his previous school. My work was to help him to be true to his temperament and keep his world neat and orderly, but also complete his assignments in a timely way. This became a project that we undertook together. I encouraged him to sharpen his pencils while he ate his snack, so they were ready for the next day, and when we had research assignments in the later grades, I would always check in to make sure that he did not procrastinate in starting his work. “Slow and steady,” became the guiding principle, and each year he became more capable.
The temperaments have been a “working idea” for me over the years, and there have been instances when new insights have helped my understanding grow. Sometimes this occurred through a special moment in the classroom or at recess—seeing a child’s drawing or painting or watching how a child walked (cholerics can be heavy footed and walk on their heels, while melancholic children can drag their feet.) At other times it came through a colleague’s remarks. I remember a colleague asking another Waldorf educator the following question. “I am a choleric mother, but my daughter is phlegmatic. I worry that I don’t understand her temperament. What can I do to support her?” The answer surprised me, and I have never forgotten it. “Clean your cupboards.” The person went on to add that the phlegmatic child loves when everything is in order, and they love the feeling of ordered abundance. A well-stocked cupboard, with all of the cereal boxes neatly lined up, as well as the soup cans and the jars of dried fruit and nuts in a row, provides the phlegmatic child with a sense of wellbeing.
Another bit of advice about bedtime, that I happened to hear about, was given to a parent of a melancholic ten-year old boy. The mother was told to physically comfort her son at bedtime while he was still young enough to allow it. “Warm his pajamas and his towel in the dryer and then make him a cup of tea with honey. Something sweet will help him feel that life is not so hard.”
These stories, and others, helped me to understand the needs of each temperament. We often have insights into the temperament we had as a child, but understanding the needs of all four temperaments is essential for the teacher. It is for this reason that the do’s and don’ts of the temperaments are of the greatest help.
- Never speak to cholerics in anger, and do not try to reprimand them when they are angry. It is better to let them know that you disapprove of what they have done and that you will speak to them later. Let them have their “time out.” And be consequent with cholerics. It doesn’t help them to get away with things.
- Melancholic children are inclined to believe that no one understands how hard their situation is. Never tell a melancholic to “get over it” or to “cheer up, it’s not so bad.” Rather allow them some time to speak about everything that hurts, remembering that the melancholic is often happy to be unhappy. And keep in mind that melancholic children do not like surprises.
- The phlegmatic children love to be comfortable. Find a cozy place for them to sit with something good to eat, with family nearby or a good friend, and all should go well. Remember that phlegmatic children do not like to be hurried—not at bedtime, and especially not in the morning. But they thrive in a predictable routine.
- Do not expect sanguine children to stay focused for very long. They have a carefree temperament and are easily distracted. It can be hard for the sanguine to stay on task, and yet the best way to keep them on task is to divert them. When we interrupt sanguine children in the middle of work, it often creates in them a longing to get back on task.
Perhaps Steiner’s best advice to teachers (and parents) was to meet the child’s temperament with a therapeutic dose of more of the same. When a melancholic child sees
someone who truly suffers, someone whose daily life involves real pain, they understand how hard life can really be and their melancholy diminishes. When a phlegmatic child encounters someone who moves at an even slower pace, they want to hurry up. And it is the same for the sanguine and the choleric.
It is also important to keep in mind that it is not always easy to discern a child’s temperament. Much is at play, including what is inherited from the parents. In addition, temperaments usually occur in combinations. At school we see sanguine-phlegmatic children, melancholic-choleric children, sanguine-choleric children, and more. So it helps to observe patiently and to read more. A.C. Harwood’s classic, The Recovery of Man in Childhood, has an informative chapter on the temperaments, and Rene Querido’s book, Creativity in Education, also has an excellent section. In fact, I would like to end this blog entry with an excerpt from Querido’s book that I find to be a delightful characterization of the temperaments.
“I became aware of the differences of temperaments in a very dramatic way. I had a large class of over thirty, fifth or sixth grade children. We had a little ritual for the art block; some children handed out the paper, while others dipped it in the water and put it on the boards and sponged it. Some children gave out the brushes and the paint. Everything was going pretty well. A large bucket of water stood in the middle of the room and an empty bucket stood next to it. The idea was to paint in silence and to exchange dirty water with clean water whenever it was necessary. One Friday, there was an accident, and a huge bucket of water got kicked over everything. What did the melancholics do? They got up and stood in it. The sanguines were immediately standing on their chairs shouting, “Ooh what is that?” The cholerics rushed out after mops and buckets. What did the phlegmatics do? You may not believe it, but they sat in their chairs and lifted their legs up above the water. I got the best lesson in my life.
This story has a sequel. I didn’t think the cholerics and sanguines would be able to coordinate cleaning up the water, so I took them outside in the courtyard and played a game with them. I asked the phlegmatics to clean up the mess and they did. It took twenty minutes, but they cleaned up thoroughly. They have a wonderfully practical quality. The melancholics stood around for a while and then joined the game; they felt more comfortable playing than cleaning up. The variety of responses to this common situation was really enlightening.”
Rene M. Querido, Creativity in Education