As parents and teachers, we are always looking for ways to understand our children, to interpret their behaviours, and to be able to support them more fully in their development. In Waldorf Schools around the world, it is very common for teachers to use the Four Temperaments Model, as a foundation for understanding their students.
This is one of the oldest personality type systems in the world. The origins of this typology belong to Graeco-Arabic medicine, where it was successfully used to treat illnesses. In fact, it is still used today by practitioners of traditional medicine around the world.
Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) described the four temperaments as part of the ancient medical concept of humourism, that four bodily fluids affect human personality traits and behaviours. He believed that certain human moods, emotions, and behaviours were caused by an excess or lack of body fluids (called "humours"), which he classified as blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The Four Temperaments are sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic and were coined by the Greek physician Aelius Galenus to describe the effect of these humours on human behaviour.
Modern medical science does not define a fixed relationship between internal secretions and personality, although some psychological personality type systems use categories similar to the Greek temperaments.
It is interesting to note that traditional Chinese medicine sees that body constitution can vary from person to person, some are strong, some are weak, some tend to be hot, and some tend to be cold. According to the China Association for Traditional Chinese Medicine (CACM), body constitution can be divided into nine types, named as neutral, qi deficiency, yang deficiency, yin deficiency, blood stasis, phlegm & dampness, damp-heat, qi stagnation and special constitution. Generally, the classification of body constitution is based on physical outlook, personality, common health problems, and adaptation to external environment.
As well, Ayurveda, ancient Indian medicine refers to three main body types, or doshas: vata, pitta, kapha. Our doshas affect all aspects of us, including our psychology, emotional responses, choice of careers, foods we crave, the music we enjoy, how fast we talk, our energy levels, the colour of our eyes, the smoothness of our skin and the way we deal with stress.
In a homeschool setting, it is useful to be aware of the four temperaments as a tool for building a deeper understanding and connection with your child. By observing your child’s personality and body type, you can gain information that can often help make sense of certain behaviours. One of the four temperaments is often more dominant during elementary school years; however the goal is that through nurturing and holistic education, we help the child to come into more of a balance between the four temperaments.
Waldorf Publication, article Temperaments in a Waldorf School August 18, 2015
The choleric is a person who is fulfilled by deeds. This temperament tends to be fiery with a keen interest in all things, a high level of engagement in all they do, and quickness to action. They are natural leaders and get a lot done in group work. Teachers do well to give them many difficult tasks, make clear rules, and stick to them with the fulfillment of any promised consequences. If the teacher fails to gain a choleric’s respect, trouble will ensue! Cholerics have a good sense of judgment and can usually be trusted to divide things evenly from a firm sense of fairness and equity. They are first to want to go out for recess, and they are impatient with those who are slow or weak. Red is the favorite color most often, and typically division is the favorite arithmetic function. Cholerics can be difficult because of their intensity and quick judgments; however, without cholerics, little gets done in a crowd. They tend to be heroic and commanding in a natural way and are loyal defenders of friends, family, and community when necessary.
The sanguine is the most social of the temperaments. A party with no sanguines will tend to be fairly dull. Sanguine children have trouble concentrating because their attention flits a bit. Their color is yellow, and they delight in quick changes and varied ideas. They love people and discussions. The favorite in arithmetic is multiplication. These children know all the news in any classroom and can trace activities from the beginning to the end. If a teacher wants to know what happened, s/he need only ask a sanguine. Seating sanguines together holds the promise that they all might get weary of how much talking is going on and talk a little less themselves. Jumping rope, skipping, and running are all favorites of the sanguine elementary school student.
The phlegmatic is a complacent soul who would rather be left to his or her own devices than to be stirred to great action. Phlegmatics love food and mealtimes and look forward to these with a particular interest. They tend to like water and swimming (or, better yet, floating) and they are particularly unflappable. They have a knack at being cheerful and they tend to avoid describing any situation in terms of being a crisis. Finding the things that genuinely motivate these students is the task of the teacher because; left to their own devices they might do very little on their own. Upsetting a phlegmatic, or making him or her move too frequently can cause the phlegmatic to behave like a choleric. The anger of a phlegmatic is infrequent but intense. Addition is a favorite of the phlegmatic. Green is often their favorite color. When phlegmatics are seated together they help each other to realize that very little happens in their group and they are stirred to break the inactivity and take the initiative of their own.
The melancholic is a deep thinker, poetic in tendency. Melancholics tend to feel many things personally. Tasks can easily feel insurmountable to them and they tend to consider many situations in the most difficult light. They would, for example, most often consider the glass, “half empty.” In history lessons, these students view the misfortunes of mankind most compassionately. They often offer insights into people’s motivation from an understanding of the deep feeling life possible in human beings. Blue is often a favorite color of melancholic children. Of the four arithmetic processes, subtraction tends to be their favorite. Teachers must sympathize deeply with melancholics in order to ensure that they feel understood.
In a Waldorf school, teachers observe their students, and use this model to help support the children. It is not a hard and fast rule, and it is not advised that we label children or get stuck too strongly in one view. However, knowing the dominant temperament of a child can help us know how to proceed in a variety of situations. When a child is under stress, each temperament meets this stress differently. Each temperament approaches a new challenge, a new project, or a social situation uniquely. There are certainly common patterns and traits for each temperament and proceeding with this awareness can make a huge difference in meeting the child’s needs.
When recognizing a temperament in a child, we take a homeopathic approach, which is to say, we try to offer doses of these characteristics and traits, to help our child to be saturated in these qualities. The theory is that a child who feels held and seen in their temperament, can more easily move beyond it, into more balance as they grow up. For example, a melancholic child, who feels the “weight of the world”, and takes things in very deeply, should not be told to “get over it” or “it’s not that bad”, or “just let it go and smile”. Instead, they respond best to a loving adult who acknowledges their pain or misery and does not try to fix it.
Tips for Working with your Child's Temperament
If your child is sanguine, they are most inspired by your love and your love and attention awakens magic in them. When it comes to life, they can be easily distractible. They often change their mind and find it hard to settle down and commit to one thing. As a parent, you can encourage them to stick with what they started. You can insist that they finish the activity or sport they chose before trying a new one. During school lessons, you can help them to choose a project that really excites them and help them stay on task. Reading a book together, or looking at a picture, and having the child really take the time to look at the details, can be very helpful.
If your child is choleric it is important to help them to notice and appreciate the needs of others. Choleric children want to have deep respect for the adults in their lives. Show them some of your talents and skills. Give them challenges to work through, and make sure they get plenty of exercise. Give your choleric child situations where they can take on a leadership role.
If your child is phlegmatic they are most inspired by other children, and need support to have a social life, with varied friends to learn from and admire. At home, they require a stable, predictable environment with steady routine and rhythm. Make sure you allow space in the morning for a slow start. Your phlegmatic child is easygoing and sweet natured until they are NOT! This means that if you push them too hard, and too fast, they will get angry.
If your child is melancholic, they will benefit from focusing on the needs of others. It is easy for a melancholic child to get wrapped up in their own suffering. Melancholic children respond very well when the adult takes time to offer them compassion when they are hurt. Take time to ask a melancholic some challenging questions, and also set aside time for them to discuss a topic of their own interest.
Here are some links to Four Temperament Assessments:
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