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Temperament: Distractibility

by Nancy and Nanci
Posted April 3 2012 05:15pm
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I think most parents would say, without reflecting too much, that they would like their children to be low in distractibility, one of the nine temperament traits.   We can imagine a child listening attentively to teachers – or listening attentively to us! But like all the traits, there are advantages to being high, low or moderate. The benefit or challenge lies in the fit between the temperament profile and the expectations of the environment.

How distractible is your baby?

HIGH distractibility:

  • Your baby stops nursing when there’s a disturbance in the room, like a bouncy sibling.
  • Your baby is easily distracted if he heads for something dangerous. You rattle your keys or shake a rattle and he starts crawling towards you.

LOW distractibility:

  • When your baby heads for danger, you have to move fast and scoop him up. He won’t be distracted by a toy or set of keys (Safety-proofing your home is important for all babies. Away from home, where you can’t alter the environment, be ready to run and scoop your low-distractibility baby.)
  • If your baby is upset, hurt or lonely, she is not distracted by things you do – bouncing her, playing peek a boo, standing on your head. You can only soothe your baby by acknowledging her hurt or loneliness, and ride the emotion with your child.

How distractible is your toddler?

HIGH distractibility:
While all toddlers are busy and have a short attention span, the toddler with high distractibility constantly moves from one activity to another in response to others’ activity. He runs to the window when he hears a siren, he rushes to play with a toy another child has picked up, he hurries to grab the phone when it rings, and he has trouble listening to a story if there’s music being played.

LOW distractibility:
Your toddler is busy but moves purposefully from one area to another rather than responding to outside activities.). He builds a tower of blocks, and then runs to find a truck to knock it down. He returns to the tower and demolishes it. He may repeat this over and over.

How distractible is your school-age child?

HIGH distractibility:
Your child has trouble staying on task. Your child needs a quiet, calm corner for doing homework or completing a project. . In group activities at school, your child may need gentle support to stay focussed – like sitting close to the teacher or other adult.

LOW distractibility:
She often misses social cues from other people. If she’s involved in an activity, she doesn’t hear you when you call her to dinner. You may need to gently “interrupt” your child’s concentration. (Using innate objects like post’m notes, bells or timers may be less irritating to your child than direct parental intrusion!)


Maybe your baby, toddler or child is moderate in distractibility. The moderate zone is generally the least stressful for child and parent! Being moderate means reacting to external cues but being able to focus, as well. The tendency is to see low distractibility as more desirable but in fact, the advantages or disadvantages depend on the environment and the level of child development. A better approach is to moderate the environment, when possible, and provide strategies your child can follow to be successful even when temperament and environment aren’t a good fit.



This article was written by Parents2Parents experts,
Nanci Burns and Nancy Rubenstein
, co-authors of Take Your Temperament!

We all know that every child is unique. The Take Your Temperament! work-book is designed to help you put that reality into action in an engaging and meaningful way. It invites parents and children to explore how they react to the world—and do so without guilt or shame. Find out more at www.takeyourtemperament.ca.

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