The Four Temperaments

What makes one child so boisterous and another child meek?  What makes one social and another shy? Based on ancient Greek wisdom, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf Education movement, elaborated on the four temperaments:  choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic.  Somewhat like personality types, the Four Temperaments give us a helpful way to understand people, and especially children.

In a lecture he gave in Berlin on Mar 4, 1909, Steiner referred to temperament as “the fundamental coloring of the human personality.” Heredity plays a part in determining one’s temperament; however heredity is only one factor. The other influence comes from a person’s own unique blueprint in life.

The choleric person comes across as one who always must have his way.  Archie Bunker might have been a choleric. Cholerics show a forceful will that derives from the choleric’s blood circulation.  A choleric person possesses a blood system that dominates his physical being.  The body type of a choleric is often stocky, and his gait is often firm in the heels. Choleric children always stand out a little in a classroom.  They usually take charge of play at recess time, and they can be naturally competitive.

The melancholic is a very inward person, continually experiencing emotional and physical pain interrupting the feeling of well-being. The depressed hypochondriac Felix Unger from The Odd Couple was a classic melancholic. The melancolics body type is usually thin with a heavy gait, dark circles around the eyes, or dull, rather than shining eyes.

The sanguine person is like a butterfly flitting about, generally unable to linger on an impression for too long.  In the sanguine person, the nervous system is always fluctuating because it is not restrained by the blood flow, therefore sanguines exercise no control over their thoughts and sensations.   Dory from the Disney movie Nemo is the perfect Sanguine, as is “The Absent-Minded Professor.”  Most children exhibit some sanguinity due to the nature of childhood, but adults can retain the sanguine temperament.  They tend to walk on their toes a little, as if floating about or almost hopping in the air like a rabbit.  Sanguines also tend to be thin and tall.

The phlegmatic has strong growth forces and metabolism.  Phlegmatics usually are plump in shape and love food.  They generally let external events run their course while their attention is directed inward. Phlegmatics are passive and have a loose shambling gait.  They show a calmness and even temper and are not easily ruffled, though sometimes timid. Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Nevil from Harry Potter are excellent phlegmatics.  Phlegmatic children need to be surprised out of their comfort zone once in a while and must have lots of playmates.  They should not be allows to grow up alone. Interest arises in the phlegmatic when he sees an interest reflected in others.

The guiding principle in working with the four temperaments is to work with what is given, not with what is not there. For example, if a child has a sanguine temperament, no amount of forcing an interest into the child will help.  No amount of “being calm” with a choleric will change his tendency to rage. No amount of seeking excitement will cure a phlegmatic of their disinterest and passivity.

If a child is melancholic, don’t attempt to get them to stop being inward.  Rather, work with the prevalent tendency to examine pain and suffering.  Help the melancholic see and empathize with the suffering and pain of others whenever possible, help them to delve deeply into the temeprament.  This type of approach has a very balancing effect. Choleric children must have contact with an adult who shows strong competence in something they admire and they must encounter many challenges, attempting many difficult tasks.  It is also wonderful if cholerics have the opportunity to see another person in rage and then watch them bring that rage under quick control, as if able to turn it on and off ant the drop of a dime.

In working with the four temperaments described by Steiner, it is never the goal to pigeon-hole or label a child.  Rather, we use our understanding of the temperaments to create the social groundwork in the classroom and in life upon which we can come to know and understand each other.


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