AUTHOR: Kristin Reinsberg, MS, LMFT

Behavior Due to Individual Differences

How do I know if my child’s behavior may be due to individual differences?

Every child is born with unique traits, including temperament (innate, enduring aspects of an individual’s personality, as defined by nine categories, including activity, regularity, adaptability, mood, sensitivity, and distractibility). Genetic and biological factors influence a child’s individual personality and development. Temperament can have a big impact on how a child responds to his world and the people in it.

Children also display individual differences in their learning styles, health, or sensory processing or sensory integration (the ability to take in and make sense of different kinds of sensations), for example. These can influence how a child behaves in various situations. Understanding and respecting these differences can help you know how to best support and respond when your child is having trouble.

The key to telling the impact of individual differences on behavior is to think about your child’s unique personality and his general approach to the world. Is he slow to warm? Or is he a child that jumps right into a new activity? Is she easily distracted? Or does she enjoy sitting with one toy for long periods of time? Reflect on your child’s unique personality. This can help you to identify consistent patterns in how she responds to her environment. Then you can find ways to support her individual style, rather than struggle against it.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I ruled out that the behavior might be mainly due to my child’s developmental stage?
  • What have I observed and learned about my child’s temperament over the years? Does this information help me understand my child’s approach or response to various situations? Does the behavior match what I have read or learned about temperament, sensory integration, or other individual traits?
  • What have I noticed about my child’s general approach to learning and activities? It may be very helpful to talk with your child’s teacher to determine if there is consistency in your child’s behavior across environments.

What is my child communicating? How can understanding this help me know how to respond?

When children’s behaviors are a result of their own unique differences, they are communicating that they experience things in their own way. If things are challenging, it may be because something or someone in their environment is not compatible with their individual style. Do you suspect that your child’s behavior may be due to temperament or individual style of responding to the environment? If so, try the following strategies:

  • Adapt your expectations to meet your child’s individual style and needs. Make accommodations, when necessary. Your child’s ability to change inborn traits is limited.
  • Offer options in your environment, when possible, that allow for your child’s unique way of expressing himself.
  • Partner with your child’s teachers to provide support for his individual learning and other styles. Having a collaborative relationship with your child’s teachers can provide support to both you and your child.


Why Is This Happening? What Questions Can I Ask? What Is My Child Trying to Communicate? Strategies for Interventions
Is it due to individual differences?
What are individual differences?- They are styles or ways of interacting with the world and the people within it that are unique to that child. These styles have been consistent across that child’s history.

Examples of individual differences:

 • Temperamental styles (shy, outgoing, impulsive)

 • Learning styles (auditory, visual)

 • Congenital health or developmental conditions

 • Organic deficits

 • Physical or physiological differences

 • Could the behavior be due to my child’s developmental stage?

 • What information do I have about my child’s temperamental qualities?

 • Do my child’s behaviors match what I have read or know about temperament?

 • What have I noticed about my child’s general approach to learning or activities?

 • Is my child’s general style at home consistent with reports from his teachers (if any)?

“I experience things in my own way. This may be why I approach a particular activity or person in a certain way. Something or someone may not be easily compatible with my individual style.” 1. Observe your child to identify his or her temperamental style

2. Adapt your expectations and interactions

3. Offer options, when you can, that allow for and appreciate children’s different ways of expressing themselves and responding to the world

4. Partner with your child’s teacher to support your child’s individual learning style, both at home and at school


The framework for understanding your child’s behaviors is based upon an adaptation of James Hymes’ Understanding Your Child by Kadija Johnston, LCSW, Director of the UCSF Infant Parent Program, and is used with her permission.