Temperaments in a Waldorf School August 18 2015

The four temperaments are used in Waldorf schools for evaluating the character of each child one is teaching. These temperaments provide the teacher with tools for forging an inner connection, making the child feel that his or her teacher knows with wisdom what is behind each decision made in the classroom. Diagnosing temperaments correctly helps to build trust between teacher and student, teacher and class. Teachers often arrange seating of children so that students with similar temperaments are seated together or near each other. This provides a kind of gentle “homeopathic” experience or mirror to the child that helps the child build balance within his or her character without being heavy-handed, or too didactic.

Teachers in Waldorf schools are careful to avoid using the temperaments too much or too strongly. The danger of labeling a child is risky if the evaluative tool of determining a temperament is overused. Also, temperaments can transform as a young person grows and so attentiveness around temperaments is called for, instead of “final decisions” about them. The awareness of temperaments offers a teacher gossamer path into a student’s disposition for compassionate connection.

The four temperaments are: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic. 

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 division is the favorite arithmetic function. Cholerics are difficult to live with 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 Choleric - Getting Stuff Done!
The Social Sanguine 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, assuming that activities have little to do with them without the right kind of encouragement. 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 phelgmatic. Green is often their favorite color. When phelgmatics 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 phlegmatic child
The melancholic deep thinker The melancholic is a deep thinker, poetic in tendency. Melancholics tend to feel many things personally. Tasks can feel insurmountable to them easily 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. 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. Blue is often a favorite color of melancholic children. The advantage to seating melancholics together is that they realize, in watching others like them closely, that it is a wise practice to “get over yourself,” and get on with productivity! 

So, these are the four temperaments in a brief sketch from an elementary school teacher’s perspective. They are difficult to analyze in actual children and can take a lifetime of study and consideration with others who teach children. In different subjects, a child might manifest different temperamental characteristics and this becomes helpful information to consider in settling in one’s mind and heart what motivates a child or not. By adulthood, most people have two or three temperaments in balance working at the same time, with one slightly in the lead.

My favorite temperament story was one of a giant spill during a watercolor class. A large jar of water fell from a student’s desk. The cholerics in the class dashed to the closet to grab the sponge mop there. One choleric child ran down the hall to grab the spaghetti mop from the maintenance closet. The sanguine children jumped up on their chairs and screamed and chattered. The phlegmatic students moved their chairs to the deepest part of the water spill and sat down and the melancholic students shook their heads in dismay, predicted that no one would ever be able to clean up such a large spill and that the paintings would all be ruined. One melancholic whose water jar it was started to cry. The teacher watching all this had a perfectly delightful time watching it unfold, and was saved from overreacting to a difficult turn in his lesson. So, temperaments are useful in a number of ways! The Waldorf approach works creatively in this way with children/students of all temperaments.