Academic Achievement and Traits of Temperament

Towards the mid to late twentieth century, scientists began to systematically investigate human behavior and personality within the constructs of temperament. One of the first questions they asked was how temperament in humans would be defined, and where the limits were. In a proposed answer to this question, Rothbart and Derryberry (1981) suggested that temperament be characterized as the biological differences between individuals in characteristics such as reactivity, self-regulation, attention, and activity. If a person is high in reactivity, they are said to be highly sensitive to external stimuli, and may have to exert more effort to inhibit impulses. Reactive infants with persistent crying problems have been found later to be at higher risk for hyperactivity and difficulties in school (Wolke, Rizzo, & Woods, 2002). Indeed, one of the interests of temperament research is to attempt to detect temperamental risk factors in infants in order to predict their risk for later problems. This illustration is just one way in which the study of temperament could be used.

Over time, the construct of human temperament has developed some overlap among many trait descriptions. Rothbart would later go on to elaborate and add to the list traits. Additions such as surgency/extroversion relate to positive affect and higher activity level, negative affectivity relates to negative emotions and poor self-concept, and effortful control was defined as the ability to inhibit dominant impulses and instead execute less dominant ones (Rothbart, Ahadi, Hershey, & Fisher, 2001). There is not necessarily a universal term used for any single trait, but instead a cluster of commonly used terms that are often chosen depending on what a particular study is targeting or emphasizing. In any case, researchers do not seem to have been seriously hampered by a lack of universal terms; it may in fact provide flexibility.

Through the years there have been many hypothesized mechanisms behind temperament. Gray (1979) proposed a behavioral activation system (BAS) and behavioral inhibition system (BIS) which trigger responses to rewards and punishments respectively. A person with a highly active BAS would show more approach behavior towards an appetitive stimulus, and if prevented from reaching the stimulus, may react with anger or aggression (Depue & Iacono, 1989). Conversely, a person with a highly active BIS would be more likely to withdraw in order to avoid harm or punishment (Mullola et al., 2015). These two behavioral systems may be related to specific neural substrates. Derryberry and Rothbart (1997) proposed that the BAS was moderated by the basolateral amygdala and the reward-related dopaminergic neurons that project from it. In general, the amygdaloid complex is known to play a crucial role in emotional responses and emotional memories, so a relationship with the BIS/BAS systems would correspond with current understandings (Savander, Go, Ledoux, & Pitkanen, 1996).

Finally, temperament has a considerable impact on individuals in the real world. Particularly, certain temperamental traits can either hinder or enhance performance of people in academic settings. Indeed, many studies have found that temperament is just as important—and occasionally found as more important—to academic achievement as intelligence (e.g., Colom, Escorial, Shih, & Privado, 2007; Moreira et al., 2012). In order to achieve success in school, one must be able to successfully interact with teachers and other students, modulate their own attention, control their behavior, and cope with their emotions successfully (Ladd, 1990; Hernández et al., 2017; Wilde, 2012). Thus, identifying the temperamental traits that affect one’s ability to accomplish those tasks is of upmost importance. The argument being made in this paper is that, through a combination of behavioral approach tendencies and high effortful control, the best academic outcomes materialize. While highly behaviorally activated individuals demonstrate more motivation, without sufficient self control, some approach traits can lead to worse outcomes.

Approach and Withdrawal Traits

Anger and Aggression

Anger and frustration in the classroom can be an immense hindrance both as far as accomplishing schoolwork, and when interacting with others in a social environment. It is especially important when talking about young children, as they have not yet fully developed emotionally compared to adults (Thompson, 1991). When encountering difficulty in tasks, the most adaptive way to handle oneself is to problem-solve or ask for help. Unfortunately, however, a child who is easily frustrated is less likely to do either. Bryce et al. (2017) studied 241 children and their teachers. The purpose was to observe children as they enter preschool and transition into kindergarten in order to examine the role that certain temperamental and cognitive factors affected their academic success. Engagement, as a trait, was considered to be related to things such as how cooperative a child is, how well they follow the rules, and how attentive they were. The results were that anger was negatively, and positive emotionality was positively, correlated with behavioral engagement, which itself had a direct positive correlation with academic achievement. Based on this research, the relationship of anger and academic achievement seems to be mediated by behavioral engagement. This supports the premise that behaviorally activated individuals have good academic outcomes, but only with sufficient ability to inhibit one’s more negative impulses. Individuals high in approach behaviors would choose to engage peers at increased rates, and—with more positive emotions—would be able to inhibit aggressive tendencies to make their peer engagements positive transactions.

It is possible that frustration rather than aggression is most related to lower success in school, and measures of anger may be conflating the two. Frustration without action could reflect a motivated yet more highly inhibited trait set than anger. Though this idea appears to be contradicted by evidence that linked higher frustration in elementary school girls with increased achievement (Vanschyndel, Eisenberg, Valiente, & Spinrad, 2017). However, another temperamental factor (high effortful control) may have affected the way anger would otherwise be expressed, and in this case, redirected it towards more constructive ends. Either way, this information demonstrates that while general measures of increased anger are at least indirectly correlated with decreased academic achievement, there are other factors that need to be taken into account.

The role of context as moderator of academic outcome. The social context in which aggressive behavior is expressed matters for the academic outcome because some cultures may be more or less accepting of aggression. In certain settings, aggressive individuals may actually be perceived and/or treated as more popular—even though they are still generally less liked—because you can envy and respect someone you don’t necessarily like (Faris & Felmlee, 2011). This means that they would not incur the social the social downside usually evoked by aggression. Garandeau, Ahn, and Rodkin (2011) conducted a study on 968 fourth and fifth graders from the American Midwest. They wanted to analyze the relationship between aggression, academic achievement, and social status in 4th and 5th graders. Aggressiveness increased popularity in highly hierarchical classes, likely because order rather than academic achievement was more highly valued. Supporting this idea, classes where academic achievement was highly valued, aggressive individuals were much more likely to be disliked and less popular. Consistent with these results of cultural moderation, aggression in Chinese students is much more powerfully correlated with low academic performance, a finding the researchers suggested was likely a result of lower tolerance for aggressive behaviors in those particular cultures (Chen, Huang, Chang, Wang, & Li, 2010; Yang, Chen, & Wang, 2014)

These outcomes support the conclusion that higher aggression is associated with lower academic achievement. That said, one may find it odd that aggression doesn’t appear to have an even more detrimental effect on academic achievement. This could possibly be explained by the conjecture that what many of these studies identify as “aggression” may be more akin to strong assertiveness, rather than aggression in the sense of fighting and bullying. Indeed, “explosive” temperaments have been found to be highly harmful to academic performance (Mullola et al., 2015). These distinctions are illustrative of a spectrum of reactive expression. At the moderate end, traits such as low harm avoidance, novelty seeking, and reward dependence may underlay more constructive behaviors and higher academic achievement. While at the high end, extreme levels of low harm avoidance and high novelty seeking—combined with less ability to inhibit one’s more destructive impulses—may lead to worse academic achievement (Bryce et al., 2017). Rather than frustration by itself being the problem, it may be a person’s reactivity or intolerance of frustration that leads to negative outcomes. Individuals with more positive emotionality would be more resilient to frustration, and would thus be more motivated to overtake something obstructing their goal rather than succumbing to it. Data supporting this perspective is consistent with Wilde (2012), who reported that frustration intolerance accounted for 23% variance among the GPAs of undergraduates. A possible quibble may be a question of how much the results of undergraduates could be generalized to the temperaments of toddlers and school children. However, with an effect size so high on a single trait, it would be irresponsible to ignore such findings.

The Behavioral Inhibition and Activation Systems.

It may help to put things into perspective by discussing how many of the traits thus far mentioned—such as anger, explosive temperament, reward dependency, novelty seeking, and high academic achievement—fit into the concept of the BIS and BAS systems put forth by Gray (1979). Most of the approach-inducing behaviors already mentioned fit into what was termed the behavioral activation system (BAS). As previously stated, this relates to the temperamental system that responds most to appetitive stimuli that elicits desire, such as reward, novelty, and similar traits. Both a person who is driven to achieve and receive rewards, and a person who is prone to explosive anger and temper tantrums are said to be highly responsive to the BAS (Depue & Iacono, 1989). What creates this division among these two related temperaments is likely most related to their differential abilities to inhibit impulses, control their emotions, and keep long-term goals in view. Those abilities are related to traits such as effortful control and executive function, which will be elaborated and explored more later. Additionally, positive and negative emotionality—positive and negative affect plus intensity—distinguish adaptive from unadaptive academic outcomes (Rothbart, et al., 2001; Bryce et al., 2017).

Withdrawal and the BIS

The other side of the coin is the behavioral inhibition system (BIS). People who have a powerful and active BIS are more sensitive and reactive to negative stimuli, such as unfamiliar novel things or punishment (Gray, 1979). These individuals tend to experience anxiety and therefore withdraw from social interaction to avoid perceived possibilities of harm, and thus are frequently lacking in their social skills. Performance in school is often affected negatively because these traits lead to peer rejection, and peer rejection leads to worse academic performance (Ladd, 1990). Conversely, having more friends in school is associated with better performance.

Considering the BIS and BAS, one can investigate traits associated with both to see how they interact, and to see which traits from both sides could be independently associated with academic achievement. Mullola et al. (2015) studied individual traits in addition to temperament profiles which embodied different ratios of those traits. Novelty seeking was identified with the BAS in that individuals high in the trait are generally extroverted, avoid frustration when possible, and are not very bothered by messiness or disorder. Despite, being associated with positive outcomes such as higher accumulated knowledge, novelty seeking may also cause one to overlook details or be impulsive. Harm avoidance can be positive in that it is necessary for behavioral inhibition, but it can also lead to problematic anticipatory anxiety and stress. The overall find were that lower harm avoidance correlated with higher academic achievement for both males and females. Though, contrary to what the authors predicted, novelty seeking was not significantly correlated with higher or lower academic achievement. Reward dependence and higher persistence was associated with academic performance in men and women respectively. The association with all 4 traits was modestly related to overall academic achievement, with it explaining 1.5–2.3% of variance. This less than robust variance may be somewhat explained by what the authors already mentioned in that both novelty seeking and harm avoidance include components that could help academic performance, and ones that could hinder it. Those high in harm avoidance have the ability to inhibit behavior, which is a trait that has been shown to improve outcomes in behaviorally activated individuals. Thus, if the ability to inhibit impulses on its own was measured as its own discreet trait apart from harm avoidance, it may increase the predictive power of harm avoidance as negatively predicting achievement.

So it may be helpful to divide novelty seeking and harm avoidance further into sub-categories that isolate the academically obstructive predispositions from the helpful ones. Two of the areas within harm avoidance, shyness and inhibitory control, have shown differential relationships with academic achievement (Walker & Henderson, 2012). Inhibitory control directly predicted outcomes in school, but shyness however, was related as an indirect and moderating factor. Increased shyness led to worse social problem solving skills (SPS), which itself was directly related to achievement. Therefore, inhibitory control and not the other features associated with an active BIS lead to better academic outcomes; the ability to inhibit oneself commonly occurs with withdrawal behavior, but is far from exclusive to it, making it most beneficial to draw a sharp distinction between withdrawal, approach, and self-control traits.


The inhibitory control associated with the BIS is correlated with higher achievement, while the effects of negative emotionality which also often accompany a powerful BIS are related with worse outcomes. In particular, negative emotionality often leads to self-defeating thoughts and beliefs about oneself, which can cause a person to avoid or even attempting something because they may fail (Skaalvik, 1997). Other traits associated with negative emotionality are anxiety, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, and neurotic personality (Studer-Luethi et al., 2016). Some researchers have identified emotionality as affect (negative or positive) combined with the intensity of the of the emotion (Eisenberg, Fabes, Murphy, Maszk, Smith, & Karbon, 1995). Positive emotionality has been associated with more traits relating to the BAS (for example persistence and high activity level), which themselves are more associated with better academic achievement (Al-Hendawi, 2013). Though, the BAS is not exclusively positive emotionally, as the example of anger demonstrates. So positive and negative emotionality are both able to occur at a side of the BIS-BAS spectrum.


Approach behavior is highly related to success in academics. Approach tendencies and an active BAS are associated with a much more positive emotionality than withdrawal predispositions and a strong BIS. This leads behaviorally activated individuals to engage peers more often (improving the social academic environment), and attempt more numerous and difficult academic tasks, maximizing scholarly reward. Negative valence, however, can occur in behaviorally activated individuals, and is expressed in anger and explosive behaviors. The ability to control one’s emotions, focus on long-term rewards, and inhibit negative impulses is what separates positive and negative academic outcomes among those with an active BIS.

Executive Function

Task Orientation

Measures of self control are extremely important in explaining and predicting academic success (Bryce et al., 2017). Attributes like persistence and distractibility are highly related to a person’s ability—or lack thereof—to ignore irrelevant stimuli and stay focused until a task is completed. Viljaranta et al. (2015) investigated these traits in first graders via task orientation, which combined activity, distractibility, and persistence into a single measure. Activity reflects the “tempo and vigor” of a child’s motor responses; distractibility (as the name suggests) relates to how easy it is for a child to be distracted by irrelevant and other low-level stimuli—how easily sidetracked they are; and persistence relates to the ability to focus one’s attention on a goal or task—especially if the task at hand is difficult—and follow through until the task is complete. Low task orientation was related to worse math and reading skills. Moreover, the interaction style of teachers was found to moderate the change in student abilities throughout the first grade. That is, teachers often responded to the low task orientation of their students by applying more control (putting them back on task or helping them directly), which improved the performance of the children. Smaller class sizes have been shown to be beneficial, and in this case, would enable Finnish teachers to devote the necessary time to students with lower task orientation (Hanushek & Luque, 2003). If the US has larger class sizes, its teachers may have a harder time compensating for children with lower task orientation. Nonetheless, these findings are encouraging because they indicate that low task orientation is not necessarily a problem that cannot be at least moderately overcome. When a student has problems ignoring distractors or persisting at a task, a teacher may be able to implement measures to counteract this particular set of problems. Viljaranta and colleagues specifically refer to “scaffolding,” by which an adult provides assistance to the child that enables them to achieve a level of competence they likely would not have been able to reach on their own. In the case of Finnish children with low task orientation, the behavior control exerted by the teachers was the scaffold.

Attention. Directly related to the concept of task orientation is the trait of attention in general. Similar to task orientation, attention is about being able to focus one’s conscious awareness on a target stimulus without allowing oneself to be distracted by irrelevant stimuli. It is easy to see why this would be important in the academic setting. Children are expected to sit and focus their attention either on their teachers, or a task given by their teachers. This task is made even more difficult in an environment with peers who will often be engaging in behaviors that stand a good chance of diverting the attention of others; whether that be by whispering, making jokes, or kicking the back of someone’s chair. Some children will be able to properly attend what they should be giving their attention to, and many others will not. Rudasill, Gallagher, and White, (2010) investigated attention skills in children to see what relationship attention had with academic success, and whether the “climate” of the third grade classrooms would moderate achievement. Achievement indeed did predict higher achievement in both math and reading. Children who had the highest measures of attention were able to complete tasks more effectively than their lower attention peers. This is likely because those with low attention would get bored or be distracted by irrelevant stimuli and stray from their task, while those with high attention stayed on task until it was completed. Additionally, classroom climate and emotional support was found to be a moderating factor with those children who had lower attention. Emotional support had a compensatory effect on low-attention children, but the children who already had robust attentional skills were not effected significantly by classroom emotional support. The reason for this is that high-attention children didn’t need to be redirected to their task by a teacher, while low-attention children did stray from task, and so being redirected would have shortened their time off task. It has similarly been reported elsewhere that intervention can help academic achievement and improve attention (e.g., O’Connor, Cappella, McCormick, & McClowry, 2014). Such results may help professionals address certain temperamental handicaps in the future.

Attention as related to behavioral activation. In addition to attention, Rudasill and colleagues measured activity levels with the observations and parent questionnaires. The results from that were somewhat contradictory because parental measures of child activity predicted higher achievement in the third grade, but observed activity in the class was negatively correlated with achievement. The authors hypothesized that the earlier measured activity levels by the parents may have been more indicative of healthy exploration and curiosity, while the measures in class were indicative of less behavioral regulation, and poor inhibitory control. This uncertainty seems analogous to the way in which previously mentioned studies found some aspects of approach behavior as helpful, and others as harmful to academic success (Vanschyndel et al., 2017; Garandeau et al., 2011). The broad trend is that approach behaviors are associated with academic achievement, but especially when individuals are also high in the ability to regulate attention and behavior effectively (Eisenberg et al., 1995). Approach behaviors are positive because they increase exploration, effort, and motivation. However, in order to keep these traits from leading to angry outbursts, social problems, and self-damaging impulsivity, an individual must also be able to inhibit certain aspects of their higher overall activity. This is where the concept of effortful control becomes relevant.

Effortful Control

When Rothbart, Ahadi, Hershey, and Fisher (2001) first brought attention to effortful control, they defined it as the ability for a person to inhibit dominant responses or initial impulses, and instead perform a sub-dominant or more constructive impulse. Effortful control may be used to isolate and describe the self-control component which the previously mentioned research has alluded to. An initial question may focus on how effortful control develops and interacts with other temperamental traits.

Attachment and effortful control. Dindo et al. (2017) put forth the idea that secure attachments promote emotional regulation, receptivity, and coping skills; things that are generally common of individuals high in effortful control. Their study showed a robust effect. Effortful control measured in toddlerhood was able to predict academic achievement a decade later. Moreover, the attachment relationship between the parent and child early on was correlated with effort control, thus supporting their hypothesis of attachment as a modulator. When a child is securely attached, they feel confident enough to venture out and find the natural limits of what they can and can’t do through trial and error, and develop the ability to control themselves based on the knowledge of these limits. Overly stiffing or authoritarian parents may not allow children the opportunity to develop these skills, and children of neglectful parents may not feel confident enough take the risks and explore. This information gives insight into the possible ways in which adaptive self regulatory predispositions develop.

There are still clearly more factors than just attachment involved with the development of effortful control and later academic achievement. Factors such as similar parent-child genetics and socioeconomic status—or more specifically, how socioeconomic status effects development—would still need to be taken into account.

Executive control as a moderator for academically supportive social interaction. Previously it was discussed how approach and withdrawal responses were related to success in school, often through the moderator of social skills (Garandeau et al., 2011; Mullola et al., 2015; Walker & Henderson, 2012). The evidence suggests that measures of effortful control may also be related to academic achievement at least partially through the moderation of their effect on social skills. Some investigations have combined the two measures to show that anger negatively with academic achievement, and effortful control positively correlates with it (Bryce et al., 2017). High anger and low effortful control lead to less quantity and lower quality peer engagement, thereby leading a child to get less support emotionally, and less assistance on tasks from other students. Hernández et al. (2017) found that in a sample of kindergartners, effortful control was powerfully correlated with student achievement in school a year later. Importantly, effort control was also found to be highly predictive of positive relationships with teachers and closeness with other students. Low effortful control was predictive of conflict between the student and teacher. Student-teacher relationships improve with children who can inhibit their impulses because they are less likely to speak out of turn in class, back-talk teachers, and are more successful at following class rules and teacher instructions. Similarly with peer interactions, they are able to restrain themselves from confrontational or degrading behaviors, leading to more positive overall interactions and peer support.

It seems that effortful control is very important for the overall class climate. In order to successfully adapt to the academic environment, one must have positive relationships with other people, especially the teachers. If a child exhibits too much impulsivity, that child may end up violating rules or sacrificing long-term goals for transient pleasure. Indeed, impulsivity shows a strong negative correlation with effortful control that persists over time (Valiente et al., 2013). Along the same line, impulsivity was shown to have a negative correlation with academic achievement when considered by itself. Interestingly, however, impulsivity obtained a positive correlation with achievement when it was analyzed in tandem with effortful control. Based on these results, it seems that some aspects of impulsivity may include positive features associated with approach behavior in general, but that they are overpowered by the negative aspects unless sufficient effortful control is also present. This supports my contention that behaviorally activated individuals can achieve the highest success when they inhibit the counterproductive aspects of approach behavior.

Shedding additional light on the topic, Vanschyndel et al. (2017) specifically looked at temperamental and social factors such as effortful control, school popularity, and academic achievement. Frustration was measured as being the feeling one gets when a desired object is delayed, leading to compensatory motivation to try harder and achieve the goal. This distinction is made because frustration is commonly though of as anger, but anger as defined by the authors specifically denotes retaliatory approach behavior combined with negative affect. Vanschyndel and colleagues found that effortful control was the single most important predictor of academic achievement. Girls’ frustration was negatively correlated with popularity, but positively related to achievement, and effortful control and vocabulary were strong predictors of self-regulation, social competence, and strong scores on achievement tests. These results reinforce the position that social ability and peer engagement (approach-related factors) combined with inhibitory self control lead to the greatest achievement in academic settings.

Both effortful control and approach behaviors are related to academic achievement, but effortful control is the most relevant of the two. This effect seems highly consistent, with it being seen leading to higher grade-point averages (GPA) in cultures as dissimilar as China (Zhou, Main, & Wang, 2010). It has even been found that individuals high in effortful control were able to excel in tasks designed to improve working memory (WM) more than those who were lower in effortful control (Studer-Luethi et al., 2016). Effortful control moderated the larger improvements in tasks by helping the children deal with frustration and persist through the task. However, high effortful control may be an indicator of predispositions towards better WM, and therefore effortful control would not merely be a moderator. In other words, the same biological systems WM depends on may be the same one effortful control depends on.


The data is highly supportive of the position that temperament in general has a significant relationship with academic achievement. When the temperamental traits are properly divided into components—some which negatively correlate, and some which positively correlate—temperament is seen to affect both performance on tasks, and social skills necessary for excelling in the scholarly environment. One may ask whether temperament has a stronger, lesser, or equal effect on academic performance as intelligence itself. To shed some light on this question, Moreira et al. (2012) conducted an extensive study making use of 4 inventories. Results were that temperament and intelligence accounted for roughly equal portions of academic achievement. The effect of both traits was large, with intelligence (as measured by Cattell’s reasoning scale) and temperament/personality factors each yielding a 0.25 correlation coefficient.

A similar inquiry was conducted by Colom et al. (2007) where they looked at several individual factors relating to intelligence and temperament. Specifically regarding intelligence, the authors measured processing speed, working memory, controlled attention, fluid intelligence, and short-term memory. The results were impressive, with 60.8% of the variance of school achievement being accounted for by the factors of working memory, fluid intelligence, and short-term memory for intelligence, and sensation seeking, impulsiveness, and lack of fear for temperament. These findings show that temperament and intelligence are both important factors influencing school achievement. Researchers can now speculate about what makes up the other 40% of variance. Crystalized intelligence, for example, was one factor used in another study to reach a similarly high account of variance as that of Colom and colleagues (Luo, Thompson, & Detterman, 2006).


Stress-Diathesis and Gene-Environment Theories

One final point of interest is the mechanisms behind the temperament factors thus discussed. The hypothesized BIS/BAS systems which have been mentioned are one possible mechanism explaining reactive patters to stimuli. Others to consider are the gene-environment model, and stress-diathesis theory. Martin (1994) states that temperament is fairly variable in infancy and toddlerhood, but becomes more stable with age. As a child gets older their biological temperament motivates them to interact with the environment in a particular way, often evoking particular responses; gen-environment. Environments can respond to help correct negative aspects of a child’s temperamental tendencies, or it can make them worse. The stress-diathesis perspective sees biological tendencies towards unadaptive behaviors as risk factors which either leave a person more vulnerable or more resilient to environments which put varying levels of stress on the individual (Martin, 1994). For an example, the earlier mentioned Rudasill et al. (2010) could be used. Attention would be the diathesis or temperamental susceptibility, and the level or emotional support in the environment would reflect the stress being put on that trait. Individuals high in attention could withstand the stress of an emotionally unsupportive environment, while those with low attention would succumb. This model could be useful by helping professionals identify which aspects of the environment are necessary to alter in order to lower the risk of negative outcomes for children.

Neurobiological Mechanisms

Biological mechanisms have also been identified, in particular, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the areas they projects to (Savander et al., 1996). The authors identify the amygdala as a generator of emotional responses, which interact with the hippocampus to attach emotion to memories. Additionally, the amygdala and its functioning with the sympathetic nervous system may be related to explosive anger and extreme withdrawal fear responses. It would make sense that the sympathetic nervous system, and related brain regions, help to “power” reactivity to stimuli. Indeed, the phrase “fight, flight, or freeze,” which is commonly used to describe the sympathetic nervous system almost seems like another way of describing the BIS and BAS systems. Those individuals who are most reactive to threats of punishment would embody the “freeze or flight” aspect, and those who are predisposed to approach behaviors would be more apt to “fight.” Fighting would stand to win the most rewards compared to the other two, but only when a fighter selectively chooses to accept confrontations that have a high chance of success. Along those lines, high effortful control combined with a “fight” (approach) predisposition would lead to the most successful outcomes.


Temperament is extremely important to academic achievement, accounting for up to 60% of performance variance when combined (Colom et al., 2007). It helps to explain why many otherwise highly intelligent individuals nonetheless perform poorly in academic settings, and how intelligent individuals may lack the social skills to properly adapt to complex social environments like classrooms. This data is encouraging in that it identifies several areas where professionals can focus intervention programs to ameliorate risk factors for students. Temperamental handicaps need not be an insurmountable obstacle between children and their success in school.

The primary temperamental factors which affect academic achievement the most include the BIS/BAS systems, which predispose individuals to different levels of reactivity to stimuli, and affect whether the reaction is withdrawal or approach (Gray, 1979; Bryce et al., 2017). This alters how much effort they exert towards goals, but also affects their social skills and how they interact with others (Ladd, 1990). The BAS drives the approach traits most beneficial to achievement, but only when an individual has sufficient control over themselves and their emotional regulation to inhibit the handful of destructive BAS traits like excessive anger and impulsivity—individuals high in effortful control are able to accomplish this. Effortful control and related traits such as task orientation and low impulsivity allow an individual to prevent or inhibit damaging impulsive behaviors, regulate their emotions, and plan for future goals (Hernández et al., 2017; Viljaranta et al., 2015). Thus, the BAS supplies the motivation to obtain rewards, and effortful control (and executive function) allow a person to choose best how to go about obtaining those goals with the fewest consequences. Individuals with these traits work harder in school, engage with peers and establish social supports, and thereby achieve more in the scholarly setting.

Future Directions

Research in the future should focus on further explaining the relationship that effortful control plays with social skills, and how they together achieve higher scholarly success. Additionally, more research needs to be conducted to determine whether effortful control causally enables better working memory improvement through things like better focus and attention, or whether effortful control and working memory have a combined underlying mechanism which affects both. Finally, further study will be necessary to determine how reliably temperament accounts for ~60% of academic achievement, and to discover wich traits compose the unaccounted for 40%.


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